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  • James Houser

September 5, 1991 - The Tailhook Incident

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 5, 1991. The Gulf War is over, the United States military is riding high, and it’s time to have some fun. The Tailhook Association, a non-profit fraternal organization for naval aviators, is having its annual symposium in Las Vegas. What should be a few nights of camaraderie devolve into drunken antics, sexual assault, and national scandal, casting a shadow over gender relations in the U.S. Armed Forces that still lingers today.

It’s been a while since I hauled out that dreaded word *culture* and made it the subject of a post. In the past I’ve talked at various points about how a national culture – a set of prevailing attitudes or beliefs – can affect the way warfare is conducted. On the surface, this shouldn’t seem like a groundbreaking revelation. Medieval ideas about chivalry affected the way they fought battles, Enlightenment ideas about science and rationality influenced the design of fortresses, and racial attitudes between Japanese and Americans in World War II changed the conduct of warfare in the Pacific. None of this is news.

It is unfortunate and common, though, for people to perceive the influence of culture on other societies but not in their own, and to recoil when such a thing is suggested. The idea that machismo pop culture, attitudes about gender roles, and the belief in destructive forms of warfare could not only have an effect on military efficiency, but a *negative* effect, seems to rub a lot of people the wrong way. That’s right: I’m going to talk about gender roles in the military. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

The Navy had been one of the first US military services to actually begin integrating women into the ranks. In 1972, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt opened up many jobs to women, including allowing them to serve on non-combat ships and removing restrictions on command assignments. Rather than opening up attitudes about women in the Navy, though, things only got worse as the years went on. Women in the Navy were increasingly isolated and ostracized, especially as the fiercely competitive nature of the 80s emerged. A 1986 study showed that women were facing growing, not lessening, isolation at the Naval Academy. In December 1990, a female cadet was handcuffed to a toilet in the women’s bathroom and photographed in this degrading position. The resultant scandal warranted an IG investigation.

The 1980s in general carried great uncertainty about the role of women in the military. Officially, though women spread through non-combat jobs, they were excluded from any role that would come close to combat. In 1988, the Department of Defense promulgated the “risk rule,” where if women were at equal or greater risk of direct combat in their units, they were not supposed to serve in those units. This was, and is, absurd. It was still the case in the Army in 2003, and women were in combat all the time there; keeping them out of the frontline did not keep them from being shot at. A disproportionate number of women served as bridge crew operators, one of the heaviest and dirtiest MOSes in the Army, and in 2003 had to bridge the Euphrates under direct fire. Policy did not match the harsh demands of reality.

Either way, this policy kept women from flying combat missions – but not from being naval aviators. The first women had become naval aviators in 1973, but were not allowed to fly combat aircraft. Just like the Army restrictions, though, this quickly fell through in the face of reality. During the invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, women pilots performed logistical and support functions and came into direct contact with enemy fire on multiple occasions.

The big breakthrough, of course, was during the Gulf War, which ushered in a quiet and irrevocable turning point for the United States military. Of approximately half a million troops who fought in Desert Storm, 41,000 – 7% - were women. This made it clear that the United States could no longer fight a major war or campaign without the women in their ranks. Though the war was short enough that the “risk rule” did not come under serious scrutiny, women did die. Major Marie T. Rossi died at 32 on March 1, 1991, when her Chinook crashed while flying in to deliver ammunition to the 82nd and 101st Airborne – the first female pilot to die in a combat zone.

Women’s expectations about military service changed profoundly after Desert Storm, from expecting to be merely auxiliaries or curiosities to being core components of the armed services. But this was not enough to bring change to military policy. Unfortunately, reform would come under much darker circumstances.

We all love our 80s nostalgia, so it’s hard to deny that American action and war films in that age carry a very *particular* view of masculinity. Think of your stereotypical “action star,” the Arnolds and the Chuck Norrises and the Clint Eastwoods, and of course my personal unfavorite Top Gun (which is a *bad* movie, yell at me in the comments all you want, you know it’s true). In fact, Top Gun is my favorite example, because it plays right into Tailhook: a stunningly melodramatic tale of male machismo. The protagonist is a badass playboy who doesn’t like rules, hates teamwork, gets rewarded or excused for bad decision-making, and is told by the female love interest that his aggressive belligerence what she likes about him.

You’re saying, “James, it’s a movie,” but this movie made a metric crapton of money and the US Navy was literally setting up recruitment booths outside the theater. Anyone who saw it and enjoyed it had to at least consider that A.) this sort of behavior was cool and good, B.) the service was a masculine place for men to be manly men with other manly men (no homo), C.) women are rewards, grieving widows or not present, and they secretly like your stupid assholery, and D.) this might be how things actually are. I hate Top Gun, and to be honest with you, I really think you cannot disconnect Top Gun from Tailhook.

The Tailhook Association was born in 1956 as an informal club for Naval/Marine aviators, and grew from there. It went from a private club to an organization that was semi-officially associated with the active duty military, and its yearly conferences began to take on the air of a big social gathering. This had a valid purpose – to connect junior officers, who did the majority of the flying, with senior officers and defense industry reps. As with any business/professional conference, there was always a fair amount of partying and goings-on after hours, but by the mid-80s the behavior had started to cross the line. Heavy drinking, public nudity, general hooliganism, and other activities had started to attract a bad odor. Hosting hotels would put off any remodeling plans until after the Tailhook Convention had passed through, like some sort of drunken, sweaty, polo-shirted hurricane.

The 1985 convention – which had included strippers and crazy stunts which tore up the hotel – prompted a backlash from the senior board members, a new “zero tolerance” policy was put in place, and the 1986 convention was noticeably calmer. The notable exception was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, who allegedly performed a sex act with a stripper while around 100 Naval aviators cheered him on. What happened in 1986, though? Hmm, some movie came out featuring Naval Aviators engaging in stupid stunts and hooliganry and being rewarded for it. Probably had no impact on the fact that every subsequent Tailhook Conference grew more and more absurd. The “zero tolerance” policy was promoted in public and ignored in practice, even though senior Navy, Marine and Defense Department officials attended the Conferences every year and HAD to know what was going on.

The pressure of Desert Storm gave the 1991 Convention a sense of feverish, triumphant supremacy – and the looming post-Cold War drawdown gave it a sense of anxiety. What had been justified or ignored in the past was now dialed up to 11. That year, 96 percent of the Tailhook Association’s 14,000 members were male: out of the 9400+ pilots and air crew in the naval air fleet, 177 were women, only 27 flying jet planes. Just over a third of all Navy carrier aviators in the force attended, and this included a handful of women. They had come to the conferences in ones or twos before, but never at this level.

On September 5, 1991, the Tailhook Conference convened, and most of the first two days were taken up with presentations on Gulf War operations and interviews with former Iraqi POWs. Senior Navy admirals and DOD officials were all in attendance. The attendees’ behavior was somewhat muted until September 7, when a panel of flag officers were taking questions from the audience. At one point, a woman in attendance stood up and asked Vice Admiral Richard Dunleavy when women would be allowed to fly combat jets. Her question sparked an uproar of name-calling and derision, including contemptuous laughter; as Dunleavy replied with a statement that they would comply with Congress’ directions, this generated boos and jeers.

That night - September 7 – it all boiled over. The aggressive behavior only grew as the night went on and the attendees drank more alcohol. They hired strippers and prostitutes, walked around with their genitals hanging out of their pants, mooned, streaked, pissed and shat and puked on the carpets. By 2200 on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, throngs of male pilots lined the hallways, forming what was called “the gauntlet.” Men at the end of the gauntlet would signal a woman’s approach, after which the men would hug the walls until the woman began to pass. The women would not know they were walking into a gang assault until they were already surrounded, by which time they were being groped, stripped, manhandled, and passed through the crowd. While some women “played along,” others resisted, and the more someone fought back, the more they were attacked.

The men at Tailhook were puking drunk. One man was photographed wearing a T-shirt that said "Women are property." They got a teenager nearly blackout drunk and passed her through the gauntlet, naked from the waist down. Hotel security guards, who had observed but not interfered, ran out to retrieve the girl; as soon as they were gone, the gauntlet resumed.

Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, a CH-53 helicopter pilot and aide to Admiral Jack Snyder, was targeted for specific abuse. At around 11:30 PM, she accidentally ran into the Gauntlet on the way to her room, where the men shouted “Admiral’s Aide!” Blocked from escaping, she was pushed by two men into the middle of the ring, where she was assaulted repeatedly despite fighting back with teeth and fists. She asked an older officer for help, who responded by grabbing her breasts, before she was able to escape into an open suite where she collapsed weeping. When found by one of his friends, he chided her “You didn’t go down the hallway, did you? Someone should have warned you. That’s the gauntlet.”

The attendees considered their behavior a legitimate unwinding and well-earned respite after the struggle and triumph of the Gulf War, and this also engendered a sense of entitlement. The Top Gun attitude – flagrant defiance of authority, women as reward – and the still-toxic gender bias of the U.S. Navy contributed to the notion of naval aviation as a male domain. The postwar drawdown meant fewer pilot slots, fewer aircraft, fewer flight hours, and the entrance of women threatened access to their entitlement and the destruction of the male sphere. To *some* of these men, naval aviation wasn’t just an elite profession but a separate moral universe. It was, in every sense of the term, a “rape culture,” where men felt entitled to treat women as they saw fit in a male sphere.

Had the Navy handled the scandal well, it could have ended there. They could have prosecuted the offenders, relieved the higher officers who allowed the behavior to go on, and used the Convention as an excuse to crack down on bad discipline. Instead, the Navy basically responded with “boys will be boys,” and then a cover-up. They had failed to learn the great truth of Watergate: the cover-up almost always does more damage than the crime.

The scandal went public when Coughlin appeared on 60 Minutes, pushing everything into the open and prompting official investigations and Congressional hearings. Senator John McCain was among the prominent Senators who castigated the Navy and called for a high-level investigation. The Tailhook Scandal would bring down the Navy’s top Admiral, Frank Kelso, who had done yeoman’s work reforming the post-Cold War Navy but would be undone by the outrageous behavior of the Navy he had rebuilt. President George H.W. Bush, himself a decorated naval aviator, wept when Coughlin reported what she had gone through and her fear she would be gang-raped.

Some women at Tailhook did not see themselves as victims. Succumbing to the logic of their institution, they felt responsible for being assaulted because they had been warned, or should have expected it, or that it wasn’t a big deal. Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen maintained that she had fought her way out and given as good as she got. But most women’s reactions had nothing to do with how they felt and everything to do with how they were perceived. Coughlin would face abuse and unofficial retaliation for years by the Navy’s high command, until she resigned in 1994. She owns a yoga studio in Florida today and remains active in supporting victims of sexual assault in the United States military.

The Navy’s reaction to the incident was nothing short of a disgrace. Admiral Duval Williams, commander of the NCIS, characterized female aviators as topless dancers or prostitutes, asserting that “Any woman who would use the F-word on a regular basis welcomes this type of activity.” Williams was contemptuous of the politicians who had forced women into his Navy, and blocked the investigation at every turn. The Navy, after all, had let the behavior go on at Tailhook for years. To go after individuals would only be a “witch hunt”, and what should really be done was to fix the “cultural problem” – of course, the “cultural problem” was that no one would be punished for Tailhook.

And no one would. Admiral Snyder, who had refused to take his aide Coughlin seriously (forcing her to go to 60 Minutes), was relieved and his career ended. But elsewhere, “culture” was used as an excuse, not a symptom of a broader problem, and only general censure was passed around. Culture was partially to blame, but culture is created by individuals. The Navy’s senior leaders allowed the behavior to go on for years, allowed women to be treated increasingly poorly, and attended the conference and looked the other way. By fobbing off the problem as “culture,” rather than individuals, the Navy’s leaders contributed to the very culture they claimed they wanted to change.

The public scandal of Tailhook, went on well into 1992 and brought great shame to the United States Navy. It was this negative reason, more than anything else, that opened the door for the Clinton Administration to legalize female combat pilots in 1993. The Tailhook fallout coincided with the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and a renewed public awareness of sexual assault and harassment in general. Much of the (incomplete) progress made on sexual harassment and assault in the US Military since the 1990s has been a direct result of the Tailhook Scandal.

But much, of course, remains to be done. The United States military is still well-known for its high rates and mishandling of sexual misconduct, and until the military stops being viewed as a male sphere and women as intruders it will likely remain so. The men at Tailhook saw nothing wrong with their culture; they were surrounded by it. Fish have no concept of water. To fix the problem, you have to acknowledge you have a problem. To break a poisonous culture, you must first acknowledge the culture is poisonous.

Tailhook was one of the worst examples of sexual assault in the US military – but far from the last. Culture shapes individuals, but individuals shape culture. The way we were raised or brought up cannot be an excuse for actions now. To ignore the cultural problem, though, is to assume that we are not carrying the weight of millennia of sexism even within our own minds, to consider ourselves immune from the forces that have driven humanity since our earliest days.

We have changed less than we think, is all I’m saying.

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