The September 1991 Tailhook scandal has done more damage to the United States Navy than Admiral Sergei Gorshkov and his Soviet fleet had ever hoped to do. Although military law appears to have been violated, the escapade itself was worse than criminal—it was stupid! In this day of radical feminism, the senior officers of the service at the very least should have been aware of the risks in “letting boys be boys.” The charges began with one female lieutenant, Paula Coughlin, and escalated until the government claimed to have found 97 “victims of assault,” including seven males. Following dissatisfaction with the Navy’s careful and constitutional rights-respecting investigations, the Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) took over. Much of the Tailhook story revolves around the investigators’ methods, the preliminary results of which are summarized in a government report entitled Tailhook ’91: Part 2: Events at the Annual Tailhook Symposium.
Let it be clear at the outset that, for a government report, Tailhook ’91: Part 2 is an uncommonly readable, clear, and well-organized publication. Indeed, one wonders if the obviously considerable cost of producing such a physically and linguistically high-quality report is justified in this day of drastically declining defense expenditures. It is divided into 11 chapters and seven appendices. The “Part 2” refers to a revision and not a continuation of a previous report. The chapters describe the scope and methodology of the investigation and provide background on the “Tailhook Association,” witnesses. Navy cooperation, squadron hospitality suites, assaults, “indecent exposure,” and other improper activity as well as security and leadership issues. On the face of it, the report appears exhaustive. But does it provide an accurate picture of what really went on at Tailhook ’91? The answer seems to be both “yes” and “no.” In other words, it appears to tell a considerable amount of truth but not the whole truth that was in the possession of the investigators. Moreover, parts of it are misleading. The writing is also marred by confusion on the part of the authors concerning rank structure in the Navy. The authors repeatedly refer to “field officers,” presumably meaning “command rank,” since the designation appears to refer to (Navy) captains and commanders. Command rank is not completely comparable to field rank in the other services. Moreover, students at the U.S. Naval Academy are midshipmen, not cadets.
The culture of naval aviation is quite different from the cultures of surface sailors and submariners. Aviators, primarily carrier aviators, have been a pampered lot almost from the beginning of fleet aviation. As far back as 1928, when the old U.S.S. Saratoga (CV 3) was in overhaul at Bremerton, Washington, a group of officers threw a party ending in such debauchery with local debutantes that the latters’ fathers complained to the CO, Captain (later Fleet Admiral) E.J. King. King refused to do anything about it. One of the aviators of those years, Frank Tinker, who later flew for both the Loyalists and Franco during the Spanish Civil War, was such a hellraiser that even the Navy could not put up with his antics and threw him out. Flight operations on a carrier are, of course, much trickier than on land. The heaving deck, especially at night, makes landing a literal nightmare. These difficulties and dangers have been cited as a partial (but far from satisfactory) explanation for the lack of discipline among naval aviators when ashore. A faint odor of the antics of the carrier aviators comes through in the Officers’ Club scenes in the movie Top Gun.
The Tailhook Association was launched about 1962 as a combination professional society and social club for carrier aviators. The professional aspect of the association grew over the years. But so did the rowdiness. Destruction of hotel property at one symposium even led to the expulsion of the association from Mexico (Rosarita Beach). In recent years, at least one flag aviator. Vice Admiral James Service, reportedly tried, if unsuccessfully, to tone down the rowdiness. The symposium at the Las Vegas Hilton in September 1991 featured some 31 regular Navy flag officers, three reserve flag officers, and one Marine general officer in addition to representatives of aircraft and weapons companies like McDonnell Douglas. According to the program published in Tailhook ’91, the symposium was as professionally solid as one in any engineering society—in the daytime. Nights were a different story.
The “whistleblowing” on Tailhook ’91 began with the charge from helicopter pilot Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, a participant in at least one previous “Tailhook,” that she had been assaulted in the “gauntlet” area on the third floor. With coaching from the Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) staff, she eventually identified Captain Gregory Bonam, USMC, as her assailant. The gauntlet was a corridor area on the third floor where women were allegedly grabbed, pinched, or fondled on the breasts and crotch as they passed through. In fact, some claimed to have been bodily raised into the air and carried some distance. Most of this activity appears to have been consensual, although some was not. Lieutenant Coughlin’s complaint, first reported in the press by a young reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Greg Vistica, found its way to sympathetic hands in one of the offices of the Secretary of Defense. When Coughlin (on the basis of a photograph) “identified” her assailant, it quickly became apparent to her DOD backers that she had erred. They warned her of the error, despite the inadmissibility of such action. In a second attempt, she fixed on Bonam, and he was charged.
According to then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) Barbara Pope, at least one flag officer. Assistant Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare) Vice Admiral Richard-Dunleavy, may have had knowledge of the “gauntlet.” According to one story, Dunleavy received a copy of the Coughlin complaint and simply filed it; according to another, he bucked it up to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Stanley Arthur. Whatever the truth, Ms. Pope went into hysterics when the Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the Navy informed her that the investigations would have to proceed in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and all constitutional rights. Failure to provide such protections would likely mean failure by courts-martial to convict or reversal of any convictions on appeal. The year 1992, however, was an election year, and Ms. Pope’s threatened resignation if the investigations were not vigorously pressed appears to have concentrated the collective mind of the civilian chiefs of the defense establishment on short-circuiting the established procedures. In the words of the then-commander of the Naval Investigative Service, “Perceptions were [considered to be] more important than the truth or the protection of individual rights.”
The Judge Advocate General (JAG), Rear Admiral John E. Gordon, had similar experiences with the DODIG investigators. It is interesting to note that while Admiral Gordon retired on schedule in November 1992, the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Sean O’Keefe, implied in a speech that he had been fired. The dissembling of the civilian DOD leadership and investigative service was on a par with or perhaps even worse than that of the male and female attendees at Tailhook ’91. The sole civilian leader who came out untarnished was the Secretary of the Navy at the time of Tailhook, Lawrence Garrett, who resigned in June 1992 rather than participate in injustice.
In order to build a case, the DODIG investigators had to interview as many of the attendees as they could find. The women who had been “assaulted” were the obvious prime candidates. Ms. Beth Rudd of San Diego was one of the civilian “victims.” In a lengthy letter to the President, the service chiefs, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Representative Patricia Schroeder, she vociferously denied being assaulted or observing the kinds of behavior that were the subject of the investigation. Yet she was classed as a victim! The investigators even went so far as to pursue one of the civilian women, a Canadian citizen, into Canada. They came away emptyhanded, since she did not consider herself a victim and declined to cooperate. Testimony under cross-examination (available from me upon request) of one of the investigators revealed in sharp relief the government’s assault on logic in order to maximize the number of “victims.” DODIG would decide who was a “victim,” regardless of the “victim’s” opinion, reminiscent of the mayor of Vienna’s famous statement, “I will decide who is a Jew!” The following question by the defense counsel and reply by the government investigator aptly summarize the arrogance of the DODIG approach:
Q: Why didn’t you put in the statement that she didn’t consider herself to be a victim?
A: No answer for that either, other than the fact that basically it wasn’t relevant for her to decide that, it wasn’t relevant for me to decide that. That’s why we’re here and that’s the way I viewed it at the time was, essentially, it’s not up to men to make a determination whether or not someone else has been assaulted.
A young woman, a lieutenant and 1990 Naval Academy graduate, who lodged an assault complaint against Lieutenant Cole Cowden went by the nickname of “Bellyshot Beth.” The term “bellyshot” refers to lapping up a drink from the navel of another party. On direct examination by the government counsel, she admitted to having had consensual sex with Cowden but continued to assert that she had been assaulted. The cross-examination went less well for her, however. She admitted that she had lied to the investigators about her quite enthusiastic participation in the Tailhook partying. When queried as to why she had brought charges that could not be supported, she replied that she simply wanted to protect herself and her family from scandal. She was at the time engaged to be married. Charges against Cowden were eventually dropped for lack of evidence. “Bellyshot Beth” was not charged with misleading the investigators or with perjury, and she has presumably resumed her naval career.
The DODIG was ultimately able to bring charges against two officers, Commander Gregory Tritt and Lieutenant Rolando “Ghandi” Diaz, the latter for disobeying orders by shaving a woman above an allowed spot on the thigh! The rest of the effort expended on Tailhook has been wasted. Indeed, it is far from certain that (barring command intervention) Tritt and Diaz will be convicted. Based on the testimony, the official report, and newspaper articles, one inescapable impression is of a giant witchhunt at taxpayers’ expense.
The investigations were eventually turned over to senior officers. Vice Admiral J. Paul Reason for the Navy and Lieutenant General Charles Krulak for the Marine Corps. Krulak, a hero of the Persian Gulf War, rapidly cleared his desk, recommending that no charges be brought. Reason has not been so expeditious. He insisted on several occasions that even if insufficient evidence for conviction existed, nonappealable letters of censure should be issued. While several such letters were issued, others were rejected by Admiral Arthur, some after more than one submission. Reason is persistent. The current Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton, has handled the flag officers himself. At one point he told the press that he was spending half his time on “Tailhook,” as if that were the most important defense issue facing the nation. The career of Rear Admiral Riley Mixson, a promising naval aviator and, at the time of Tailhook, Dunleavy’s assistant, seems to have been destroyed merely because he was Dunleavy’s assistant and because he attended the Tailhook proceedings. Standing in the background of all these proceedings was the eminence grise of the House Armed Services Committee, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder; though she publicly said almost nothing about Tailhook, the principals all felt her presence. Such establishment of “guilt by association” is reminiscent of the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Several conclusions may be drawn from the Tailhook incident. A longstanding breakdown in top-level leadership in the naval aviation community was a major contributing factor to the unseemly activities. Indeed, I have seen at close range the inability or unwillingness of aviation admirals to control their junior officers. With very few exceptions, the flag officers seem to have implicitly encouraged the attitude that “boys will be boys.” The “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s and the general permissiveness that now dominates American society also contributed to Tailhook. Even an authoritative system like the Navy is not immune to outside social mores; as an old cliche states, an armed service is a reflection of the society in which it is embedded. Finally, all sense of justice seems to have been lost on the part of the DOD civilian leadership. Those who knew better were concerned with protecting their own personal interests while inquisitors ran amok.
It is sad but true that the entire Tailhook incident is a reflection of the general decay of American society. Lying, cheating, and “witch-hunting”—all have become acceptable, especially if they are done for a “good cause.”