Tailhook scandal

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Tailhook scandal
Date: September 5–8, 1991
Place: Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.

The Tailhook scandal was a series of incidents where more than 100 United States Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted 83 women and seven men, or otherwise engaged in "improper and indecent" conduct at the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, Nevada.[1]

The events took place at the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium from September 5 to 8, 1991. A report conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense's Inspector General disclosed misogynistic photos including T-shirts worn by officers saying that "WOMEN ARE PROPERTY".[2] Sexual assault reports that were highlighted included women in the hallway trying to get to their rooms on the 3rd floor but forced to walk the "gauntlet", in which hordes of drunken naval officers would line both sides of a hallway and sexually assault women who walked by them. The aftermath resulted in sweeping changes throughout all military services in the Department of Defense regarding attitudes and policies toward women. The careers of Secretary of the Navy Henry Garrett and Chief of Naval Operations Frank Kelso, both of whom were at the convention, came to an end in the wake of the scandal.

The investigations led to some officers being disciplined or refused advancement in rank. Military officers and observers have alleged that flag officers attending the symposium were not held accountable for knowingly allowing the behavior in question to occur. Military critics claimed that the scandal highlighted a hostile attitude in U.S. military culture towards women in the areas of sexual harassment, sexual assault and equal treatment of women in career advancement and opportunity.

The investigation also resulted in recommendations made by the ad hoc committee chaired by Barbara S. Pope. Following this report, in April 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced a revised policy on the assignment of women in the armed forces: The services were to allow women to compete for assignments in combat aircraft; the Navy was to open additional ships to women and draft a proposal for Congress to remove existing legislative barriers to the assignment of women to combat vessels. The Army and Marine Corps were to look for opportunities for women to serve in such components as field artillery and air defense. On July 4, 1993, President Bill Clinton announced the nomination of Sheila E. Widnall to become the first female service secretary.


The term can also refer to the resulting investigations conducted by the Department of the Navy and the Inspector General of the Department of Defense.


In September 1991, the 35th annual Tailhook Association symposium in Las Vegas featured a two-day debrief on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation in Operation Desert Storm. It was the largest such meeting yet held, with some 4,000 attendees: active, reserve, and retired personnel.

After his return to USS Midway, in port in Seattle for Seafair, then-Tailhook president Captain Rick Ludwig pulled all air wing commanding officers, staff, and flag staff officers and debriefed them on initial reports of misbehavior and incidents of fights in the hallways and on the patio by the pool.

According to a Department of Defense (DoD) report, 83 women and seven men stated that they had been victims of sexual assault and harassment during the meeting. Several participants later stated that a number of flag officers attending the meetings were aware of the sexual assaults, but did nothing to stop them.[3]

Investigation and aftermath

In response to media reports about the Las Vegas Tailhook Association meetings, the United States Department of the Navy launched an investigation, led by the then Naval Investigative Service under the command of Rear Admiral Duvall M. Williams, Jr. This group initially released a report which concluded that the incident was mainly the fault of low-ranked enlisted men behaving poorly.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) Barbara S. Pope refused to accept the results of this investigation, especially after Williams made sexist remarks in Pope's presence, most notably a comment that he believed that "a lot of female navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers, or hookers."[4] When Williams issued his final report, finding that no senior navy officials bore responsibility for what occurred in Las Vegas, Pope went to United States Secretary of the Navy Henry L. Garrett III and told him that she would resign if the United States Department of the Navy did not "do another report and look at what we needed to do about accountability and responsibility and the larger issues at hand."[5] Garrett agreed with Pope, and a further investigation was conducted, headed by Derek J. Vander Schaaf, the Inspector General of the United States Department of Defense.

Vander Schaaf's report was ultimately released in September 1992 by Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean O'Keefe. The release of the report led to the resignation of Rear Admiral Williams, and his superior, Rear Admiral John E. Gordon, the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, for their failure to conduct a thorough investigation into the Tailhook allegations.[4]

Frontline on PBS reported:

Ultimately the careers of fourteen admirals and almost 300 naval aviators were scuttled or damaged by Tailhook. For example Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III and CNO Admiral Frank Kelso were both at Tailhook '91. Garrett ultimately resigned and Kelso retired early two years after the convention.[6] Vice Admiral Richard Dunleavy, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare, was demoted to a two-star Admiral (from a three-star Admiral) and retired because of the scandal. Rear Admiral Wilson Flagg, censured for failing to prevent the Tailhook conference scandal.[7]

In the wake of Vander Schaaf's report, the Naval Investigative Service was reorganized as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Author Jean Zimmerman developed the thesis that the scandal underscored the shifting status of women in the military and particularly the role of women in combat.[8]

Progress continues to be made since Tailhook in reporting these assaults. President Obama signed legislation in December 2013 preventing commanders from overturning jury conviction for sexual assault, requiring a civilian review when commanders decline to prosecute, requiring dishonorable discharge or dismissal for those convicted, eliminating the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases and criminalizing retaliation against victims who report an assault. In late December 2013, the number of reported sexual assaults rose 50% over 2012. Jill Loftus, director of the Navy's sexual assault program, which also includes the Marine Corps, said the increase in reporting suggests that more service members are starting to understand what types of behavior constitute harassment or assault.[9]


The aftermath of the scandal involved controversy. Some retired officers alleged that in ending the careers of over 300 officers, the Clinton administration had gone far beyond punishing wrongdoers and had used the scandal as a pretext for carrying out a purge of the officer corps.[10] Former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, speaking at the Naval Academy said, "When the Tailhook investigation began, and certain political elements used the incident to bring discredit on naval aviation as a whole, and then on the Navy writ large, one is entitled to ask... Who fought this? Who condemned it? When a whole generation of officers is asked to accept ... the destruction of the careers of some of the finest aviators in the Navy based on hearsay, unsubstantiated allegations, in some cases after a full repudiation of anonymous charges that resemble the worst elements of McCarthyism ... what admiral has had the courage to risk his own career by putting his stars on the table, and defending the integrity of the process and of its people?"[11]

Another former Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, "condemned the Clinton White House for imposing policies of 'political correctness' on the navy and the Senate Armed Services Committee for impeding the career advancements of officers linked to the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal. It is 'terribly damaging to the very fiber of the Navy as an institution, this continuing attack from so many quarters' ... Officers were victims of media 'character assassination.' Following what should have been a minor story, he said, '14 admirals have been cashiered, 300 naval aviators have been driven out of the Navy or their careers terminated.'"[12] Lehman also wrote that "Of course there are many journalists, armchair strategists and think-tankers who applaud the victory of those like Rep. Pat Schroeder who vowed to 'break the culture' after Tailhook '91."[13]

Many officers raised the case of decorated Blue Angels commanding officer Bob Stumpf, who was denied promotion and retired simply for having gone to Tailhook '91 to receive an award.[14] Stumpf himself has decried the post-Tailhook climate and its effect on morale and readiness: "[T]he essence of that warrior culture has been severely diluted in this decade. Politically inspired social edicts enforced since Tailhook '91 have rendered a ready room atmosphere so different now that it is nearly unrecognizable ... Pilots are hampered in their ability to train as warriors by the policies of their senior leaders. They are faced with social experimentation and double standards in training. Experienced pilots are forced to qualify certain trainees who may or may not demonstrate established quality standards. This leads to distrust and resentment, two powerfully harmful factors in terms of unit morale, and thus military effectiveness."[15]


Lehman, in 2011, lamented what he considered to be a negative legacy from Tailhook on the navy's aviation culture. Lehman felt that the scandal had removed the necessary swagger and confidence from the navy's aviation culture and replaced it with a focus on integrating women and, more recently, homosexuality.[16][17]

USA Today on December 5, 2017, in the midst of the 2017 Harvey Weinstein and Weinstein effect sexual abuse allegations, reported that women who reported past sexual harassment have suffered purgatory. The first instance in the article was Paula Coughlin who testified against Tailhook, resigned from the US military, and has since been unable to find work in the private sector.[18]

In popular culture

  • The case inspired a 1993 Law & Order episode, "Conduct Unbecoming", in which a young lieutenant is murdered during a similar incident at a Manhattan hotel.[19]
  • The scandal itself was dramatized in the 1995 TV film She Stood Alone: The Tailhook Scandal.[20][21]
  • The scandal is referenced in "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet", the 19th episode of the first season of The West Wing. Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) refers to Tailhook in a meeting with members of congress and the military about the U.S. military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
  • JAG also mentioned Tailhook many times during its duration.
  • The X-Files episode "Detour" made passing reference to the scandal, during a light-hearted exchange between lead characters Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson). During said exchange, Scully points out that their being in the same hotel room goes against FBI policy in regards to male and female agents consorting in the same hotel room while on assignment, to which Mulder jokingly retorts for her not to try any of that "Tailhook crap" on him.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns Part II", after Smithers is arrested for shooting Mr. Burns, in response to Kent Brockman's question, he replies "I feel lower than when Madonna found out she missed Tailhook".
  • In The Simpsons episode "Simpson Tide", Homer is acquitted from Naval disciplinary charges, after captaining a renegade submarine and instigating potential nuclear war, by a naval officer: "Seaman Simpson, your actions have given the Navy a black eye from which it may never recover. I would throw the book at you, but I've been indicted on the Tailhook scandal. Goodbye!"[22]

See also


  1. ^ "The Legacy of Tailhook". Retro Report. Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  2. ^ "Tailhook '91 Party Favors - The Navy Blues - FRONTLINE - PBS". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 14 September 2017.
  3. ^ Thompson II, Charles C. (1999). A Glimpse of Hell: The Explosion on the USS Iowa and Its Cover-Up. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 379–380. ISBN 0-393-04714-8.
  4. ^ a b Healy, Melissa (September 25, 1992). "Pentagon Blasts Tailhook Probe, Two Admirals Resign". Los Angeles Times. Washington.
  5. ^ William H. McMichael, The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the U.S. Navy's Tailhook Scandal (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1997), p. 273.
  6. ^ "Post Tailhook Punishment". Frontline, PBS. Retrieved 2007-08-13.
  7. ^ Lewis, Neil (October 15, 1993). "Tailhook Affair Brings Censure Of 3 Admirals". New York Times. Washington.
  8. ^ Zimmerman
  9. ^ AP (27 December 2013). "Military Sex Assault Reports Jump By 50 Percent". Dictated. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
  10. ^ [1][dead link]
  11. ^ "frontline: the navy blues: Defending the Navy's Culture". PBS. Retrieved 14 September 2017.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1997-02-16. Retrieved 2011-03-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ [2][dead link]
  14. ^ "frontline: the navy blues: Interview with Commander Robert E. Stumpf". PBS. Retrieved 14 September 2017.
  15. ^ Center for Military Readiness Conference, "The Culture of the Military", October 21, 1998.
  16. ^ Scarborough, Rowan, "Ex-Secretary Says Navy Aviation Needs Swagger", Washington Times, September 19, 2011, p. 1.
  17. ^ Whitlock, Craig, "Accused Navy pilot Gregory McWherter resigns as Tailhook Association president", Washington Post, April 26, 2014
  18. ^ Guynn, Jessica, "Sexual harassment used to cost women their careers. That may be changing." USA Today, December 5, 2017
  19. ^ "Law & Order: Season 3: Conduct Unbecoming: Synopsis". TV Guide. CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  20. ^ "She Stood Alone: The Tailhook Scandal (1995) Movie Trailer, Review, Clips, Movie Times". August 29, 2008. Archived from the original on August 29, 2008.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  21. ^ Steele, Jeanette, "Twenty years after Tailhook, a changed Navy" San Diego Union-Tribune, September 13, 2011.
  22. ^ "The Simpsons S 9 E 19 Simpson Tide / Recap - TV Tropes". tvtropes.org. Retrieved September 14, 2017.

Further reading

  • Brown, Kingsley R. "Military Sex Scandals from Tailhook to the Present: The Cure can be Worse than the Disease," Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy (2007) 14:749-89
  • Chema, J. Richard. "Arresting tailhook: the prosecution of sexual harassment in the military." Military Law Review 140 (1993): 1.
  • McMichael, William (1997). The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the U. S. Navy's Tailhook Scandal. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-293-X.
  • Office of the Inspector General, United States Department of Defense (1993). The Tailhook Report. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-10329-3.
  • Vistica, Gregory (1997). Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy. Touchstone. ISBN 0-684-83226-7.
  • Zimmerman, Jean (1995). Tailspin. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-47789-9.

External links

  • "Tailhook (bothsides) The Dream and the Reality". compilation by Dee Finney. 2001-07-18. Retrieved 2007-08-13.
  • "The navy blues: Tailhook '91". Frontline, PBS. Retrieved 2007-08-13.
  • Lewis, Neil A. (1993-10-16). "Tailhook Affair Brings Censure Of 3 Admirals". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-30.
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