Tailhook scandal

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Tailhook scandal
Date: September 8–12, 1991
Place: Las Vegas, Nevada

The Tailhook scandal was a series of incidents where more than 100 U.S. Navy and United States Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and 7 men, or otherwise engaged in "improper and indecent" conduct at the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, Nevada. The events took place at the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium from September 8 to 12, 1991. 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.

As a result of the subsequent investigations, a number of officers were formally disciplined or refused advancement in rank. Controversially, 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 US military culture towards women in the areas of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and equal treatment of women in career advancement and opportunity. Lieutenant Gary Mandich, who was one of the many attendees and alleged participants in the lewd activities, told media, "Everyone needs to seriously lighten up. What do they expect? This is Vegas baby! They call this symposium "Tail" hook for a reason!"

His statement led to a wave of public outcry which sparked numerous protests and demonstrations at the gates of naval bases across the U.S. Various Women's advocacy groups such as the National Woman's Party (NWP) were among some of the most vocal demonstrators.


In September 1991, the 35th annual 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 the 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 fisticuffs 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.[1]

On October 29, 1991, the Department of the Navy terminated all ties to the Tailhook Association. Ties were not restored until January 19, 1999.[citation needed]

The issues were never quite settled, and as late as 2002, the Tailhook chairman spoke of "the alleged misconduct that occurred in 1991".[2] For several years after Tailhook '91 promotion board results were delayed while a special review was conducted to ensure that any person with an adverse connection to Tailhook '91 was not promoted.[citation needed]

Investigation and aftermath[edit]

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 formerly 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 Rear Admiral 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".[3] When RADM 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."[4] 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.[5]

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. Flagg later died in the crash of American Airlines flight 77 in the September 11, 2001 attacks.[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 was not without controversy. Many conservatives and 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]

Writing in Reason, Jack Kammer said "This is not to deny that some unsuspecting women were caught in activities they understandably found offensive. But after Lieutenant Paula Coughlin captured the media with her unquestioned, though questionable, claim that she was among the truly unsuspecting and offended ones, women's activists began to spin Tailhook like a top. Following their success with the Dreyer incident, they insisted that the drunken aviators in Las Vegas represented a widespread culture of oppression and hostility toward military women. How did the Navy defend itself? By hoisting a white flag."[citation needed]

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.[13] 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."[14]

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.[15][16]

"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."[17]

In popular culture[edit]

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.[18] The scandal itself was dramatized in the 1995 TV film She Stood Alone: The Tailhook Scandal.[19][20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ RADM Frederick L. Lewis, USN (Ret). "From the Chairman: Tailhook Association At Your Service". The Tailhook Association. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  3. ^ Healy, Melissa (September 25, 1992). "Pentagon Blasts Tailhook Probe, Two Admirals Resign". Los Angeles Times (Washington). 
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Healy, Melissa (September 25, 1992). "Pentagon Blasts Tailhook Probe, Two Admirals Resign". Los Angeles Times (Washington). 
  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. ^ http://www.reporternews.com/1999/opinion/tail0826.html
  11. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/navy/readings/jwebbspeech.html
  12. ^ http://www.s-t.com/daily/05-96/05-28-96/a02wn015.htm
  13. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/navy/oldnew/stumpf2.html
  14. ^ Center for Military Readiness Conference, "The Culture of the Military," October 21, 1998.
  15. ^ Scarborough, Rowan, "Ex-Secretary Says Navy Aviation Needs Swagger", Washington Times, 19 September 2011, p. 1.
  16. ^ Whitlock, Craig, "Accused Navy pilot Gregory McWherter resigns as Tailhook Association president", Washington Post, 26 April 2014
  17. ^ http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/jul/07/tp-zero-tolerance-policies-lead-to-a-risk-averse/
  18. ^ "Law & Order: Season 3: Conduct Unbecoming: Synopsis". TV Guide. CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved 11 December 2013. 
  19. ^ http://www.reelzchannel.com/movie/164314/she-stood-alone-the-tailhook-scandal/
  20. ^ Steele, Jeanette, "Twenty years after Tailhook, a changed Navy" San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 September 2011.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 0-312-10392-8. 
  • 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[edit]