Tailhook: The Story Reaches a Conclusion

February 20, 1994|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Scene: The third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, Sept. 7, 1991. The corridor is flanked by pawing, grasping Navy and Marine aviators engaged in one pursuit -- grabbing female officers wherever they can get hold of them as they run "the gantlet;" in hospitality suites, X-rated movies flicker; in another room, women are having their legs shaved by men; a stripper is performing somewhere. Elsewhere prostitutes are plying their trade.

Debauchery.

Scene: The fourth floor of the Pentagon, Feb. 15, 1994. An admiral enters his office, which is heavy with the memorabilia of a distinguished military career; photos with President George Bush, President Clinton, and with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; an oil painting of nuclear submarine 675, the USS Bluefish, which he commanded; a brass clock and ship's bell from the Navy League of the United States; a framed invitation from the ordinary seamen of the USS Arleigh Burke for him to come see their destroyer commissioned in Norfolk, Va.; another photograph with his two sons, all three of them in the summer whites and black-and-gold epaulets of the Navy officer.

Pride.

There you have the beginning and the end of the Tailhook scandal, a chapter that started as high jinks in Las Vegas and ended in the chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the Navy's top admiral, seeking early retirement in Washington last week to try to put it all behind him and the service.

In naval terminology, Tailhook occurred on Admiral Kelso's watch. And in naval tradition, he finally took responsibility for it. He consistently denied any personal culpability, although he was at the bawdy convention by his own account for one evening. Others recalled seeing him there on two nights. He did not see any of the lewd goings-on, he said, nor did he try to cover up his involvement by manipulating the investigative process, although a military judge suggested that he did both.

Before announcing his early retirement, he elicited from the secretaries of Defense and the Navy public statements attesting to his honor and integrity, both of which were severely impugned the judge's report issued earlier this month on the incident and the investigation.

That report made it clear that, long before 1991, the annual convention of the Tailhook Association had established a "notorious social reputation" for what the judge, Capt. William T. Vest Jr., called "wild partying, heavy drinking and lewd behavior," particularly by young officers. (The Tailhook Association's name comes from the hydraulic hook mechanism used to bring aircraft to a halt while landing on the decks of aircraft carriers. The association's annual conventions, which were officially sanctioned by the Navy until the scandal broke, were designed to give Navy and Marine aviators, active, reserve and retired, a chance to debate issues and developments that concerned them, while having a good time on the side.)

So what was the Navy's top admiral doing at an event where 83 women, including Navy and Marine personnel, civilians and spouses, were assaulted over three days, 53 of them while running the third-floor "gantlet" on a single night? Ironically, Admiral Kelso was at the convention to deliver a talk on the opportunities for women in the Navy. Also present was then Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III, who later was forced to resign.

A central issue in the aftermath of the scandal was why the Navy's top brass did nothing to prevent the well-known bawdiness beforehand and too little to prosecute the perpetrators afterward.

Such was the lack of leadership that the current Navy secretary, John H. Dalton, tried to get Admiral Kelso's resignation last year. He failed when Les Aspin, then the defense secretary, backed the admiral.

Admiral Kelso's fate was finally sealed by Captain Vest's judgment, imputing complicity and cover-up to the admiral. Although the admiral disputed the judge's findings, he could not escape that fact that, in his own words, he had become the "lightning rod" for Tailhook, a scandal that kept striking both him and the Navy.

In announcing his early departure, Admiral Kelso himself lamented: "I greatly regret that I did not have the foresight to be able to see that Tailhook would occur. In hindsight, I clearly can see that.

"We need to work harder to be able to understand the changes that are taking place around us and to deal with them at an earlier time than to let us get into a case like Tailhook, where we have a difficult problem."

More optimistically, he added: "I think this is the end of Tailhook."

With Admiral Kelso stepping aside and all but one of the dozens of disciplinary cases resolved -- mainly with minor administrative actions -- the decks are clear for the Navy to get on with what it does best, sailing the seven seas in defense of the nation's interests.

As it did just that last week, the first female Navy combat pilot was practicing carrier landings aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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