They Got Away with It

February 15, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Maybe they ought to teach this as a case study at the Naval Academy or at Officer Candidate Schools. It could be a lesson in the value of closing ranks, the importance of military bonding, or the power of loyalty in the face of opponents.

That's what it has come down to. About two and a half years ago, some 90 women were assaulted at the infamous Tailhook convention. Now the last cases to reach court have been dismissed. Not a single man has been court-martialed or seriously disciplined.

In the scheme of things, we should be grateful that we know what happened on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. If the men had not assaulted the wrong woman, we might never have heard about the gantlet, the streaking, the leg shaving, the butt biting. We might never have seen the photographs of the aviator with a rhino hat, or the one with the T-shirt that read ''He-man Woman Hater's Club.''

It was a young admiral's aide, Lt. Paula Coughlin, who filed the first complaint. It was she who had the courage to go public. And on Thursday it was she who announced her resignation. The woman who had been passed down and mauled by a gantlet of men said, in well-chosen words, that Tailhook ''and the covert attacks on me that followed have stripped me of my ability to serve.''

From the very beginning the Navy has worried more about getting over Tailhook than getting to the bottom of it. Its early investigators talked to 1,500 men and turned up two suspects. After the Pentagon took over the case, 140 fliers were accused of indecent exposure, assault or lying under oath. Seventy of these cases were quickly dismissed and only 50 men were ever fined or moderately disciplined. Here, a wrist was slapped. There, a letter was written into a man's record.

Last fall, Paula Coughlin's own case was dismissed after mixed evidence on the accused's identity. Leaving court, the aviator said he wouldn't hesitate to go to the next Tailhook because ''you've got the best and the brightest people there.''

Then, last week, the charges against three high-ranking officers were also dismissed. This time, the judge stated that their superior, the Navy's top admiral, Frank B. Kelso II, had manipulated the investigation ''to shield his personal involvement in Tailhook '91.'' Admiral Kelso was there, said the judge, he knew, he did nothing.

So the case appears closed. The mess remains as open as a wound.

I will leave it to others to assess Admiral Kelso. Last fall, the secretary of the Navy asked for his removal and Les Aspin saved his job. Now a military judge has called him a liar.

There are some who see him as one who let the debauchery go on. The admiral swears he wasn't on the third floor that Saturday night. Witnesses have sworn that he was and that as a gang of men urged a woman to strip, he said only, ''Am I hearing what I think I'm hearing?''

There are others who praise him as a leader in the post-Tailhook Navy, a man who took the problem seriously and made changes. Pat Gormley, head of a research project on women in the military describes him as ''a good guy who had his head in the sand.''

Either way, his story is only a piece of a larger picture. In this picture, nobody is taking responsibility. Nobody is being held responsible. Since Lawrence Garrett resigned as secretary of the Navy at the outset of the scandal, the mutual protection society has held. It's notable because we live at a time when people talk angrily about the lack of individual responsibility. We talk about the Bobbitts, the Menendez brothers, welfare mothers. We talk scornfully about the victim defense.

But nobody describes Tailhook in these terms. We don't talk about the failure of the military men to take responsibility. We don't talk about the 1,500 men questioned and the mere handful who saw evil, heard evil, did evil. The men who stamped themselves and each other ''not responsible.''

Indeed, even those who suspect Admiral Kelso's complicity or at least his lack of leadership often portray him in terms used to defend Bob Packwood: as a victim of changing mores. There is more solidarity among men in the Navy than the Senate. Ask Paula Coughlin.

This is not a search for vengeance. I'd rather the Tailhook scandal produced wholesale change in the military culture than a handful or a hundred punishments. A very different message is emerging from a failed investigation and a young lieutenant's resignation. It says: Tailhook '91, They Got Away With It.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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