For Tailhook scandal whistle-blower, wait ends today with release of report

April 23, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- For Lt. Paula Coughlin, the naval aviator who blew the whistle on sexual assaults at the 1991 Tailhook Association, the waiting ends today, when the Defense Department publicly releases its investigation of the now-infamous party in Las Vegas.

But Lieutenant Coughlin's role at the center of the Navy scandal has been a bruising affair, and the scars -- both hers and the Navy's -- are likely to remain throughout her career.

While her colleagues pore over the findings of an investigation that could break scores of careers, jail some officers and prompt major reforms in the Navy, Lieutenant Coughlin, 31, will spend her day hustling around the headquarters of her helicopter squadron in Norfolk, Va., immersing herself in a job she hopes to protect from the aftershocks. But if today is like most others since Tailhook, the incident will never be far from her mind.

Since going public with her story last June, Lieutenant Coughlin has endured the chill of resentful male colleagues, found comfort in the often-whispered support of fellow Navy women, and lived with the burden of having, almost single-handedly, fomented a social revolution in her branch of the service, she said in an interview last year and through a spokeswoman yesterday.

After her public comments, Lieutenant Coughlin was barred from piloting the Navy choppers she loves to fly -- a move that called into question her psychological state and her future in the Navy. Her grounding was in line with common Navy practice when vTC pilots are undergoing significant emotional strain.

Lieutenant Coughlin originally feared that the Navy's move was the "first step" in an effort to ease her out of the service and she has held out against what she believes have been other pressures to quit. Since January, however, she has been aloft again, piloting the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter on a two-year assignment with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 2 in Norfolk.

Does she regret going public with charges that Navy and Marine Corps officers groped and grabbed dozens of women in a third-floor hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton?

Not for long.

"If it happened all over again, I would do the same thing, probably sooner," Lieutenant Coughlin said. "I look at many of these guys [who still don't get it], and I think to myself, 'It was their Navy. It's soon going to be my generation's Navy.' "

That process is not expected to happen quickly, in spite of the Navy's determined efforts to institute sexual harassment training programs, to punish offenders and to expand job opportunities for women. But the turnover to the new-generation Navy is almost certain to get a major push today, as the Defense Department's acting inspector general, Derek Vander Schaaf, releases a report that has been more than 10 months -- and millions of dollars -- in the making.

Mr. Vander Schaaf's report is expected to make the case for criminal proceedings against at least a dozen officers and some form of lesser punishment for as many as 140 more, according to knowledgeable officials. The inch-thick report, complete with censored snapshots of participants exposing themselves and engaging in public sex, paints what one official called a "tawdry picture."

Among those officers expected to receive criticism are several admirals who investigators concluded failed to set a tone of leadership and respect for women naval officers. In a period of dramatic shrinkage for the Navy, any officer touched by the scandal -- however lightly -- will as a practical matter have his career marked for early demise, experts said.

Lieutenant Coughlin remains determined to continue with her own career. Even so, the coming months are nearly certain to bring further distractions and more pain. She probably will have to testify at the courts-martial of men she accused, and face questions about her own conduct and motives.

After going public with her story, Lieutenant Coughlin said a senior naval officer, in an apparent effort to be helpful, told her bluntly, "Wow, there are a lot of people who don't think you're going to make it, not going to stay in the Navy."

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