SAN DIEGO — On June 18, Capt. Richard F. Braden decided at the last minute to stop for a drink at the Miramar Naval Air Station Officers' Club and later found himself swept up in the wake of the Navy's infamous Tailhook sex scandal.
One month later, a stunned Braden was told that his otherwise stellar 24-year Navy career had been irreparably harmed by his afternoon visit to the club. The flag rank (admiral's position) that he had worked so hard for was now hopelessly out of reach, he said in a recent interview.
Braden, 45, was one of five officers stripped of command last month for either being present at or participating in the Tomcat Follies. The follies, a bawdy show put on each year by Top Gun fighter pilots at the Miramar club, included a sexually offensive skit directed at Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).
Some of the disciplined officers have charged that they are victims of a witch hunt by the Navy brass. The officers and their supporters, including Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego), said the Navy is using them as scapegoats to appease politicians who are critical of the Navy's role in the earlier Tailhook sexual harassment scandal.
The offensive skit at the follies included banners with sexually offensive messages directed at Schroeder. The congresswoman has been a vocal critic of the Navy's investigation of the 1991 Tailhook Assn. sex scandal, in which drunken Navy and Marine officers harassed and assaulted more than 25 women in a Las Vegas hotel.
Four of the five officers removed from command at Miramar were either commanding or executive officers of fighter squadrons involved in planning and producing the skits.
Braden's offense was that, through pure happenstance, he was the senior officer present at the club while the skits were being performed.
On July 24, one day after his commanding officer, Vice Adm. Edwin R. Kohn, had assured him that an investigation had cleared him of any wrongdoing, Braden was stripped of command.
The admiral who supervised the investigation had noted in the report that aside from being the ranking officer at the club on the afternoon of the follies, Braden had no ties to the offensive skits and should not be disciplined.
However, Capt. Tom Jurkowski, spokesman for Adm. R.J. Kelly Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, said the decision to strip Braden and the other officers of command was "done jointly by admirals Kelly and Kohn."
Sources familiar with the Navy investigation said that Kohn had actually endorsed the report's recommendation that Braden not be disciplined, but was overruled by Kelly. Spokesmen for both Kohn and Kelly have declined to comment on the report or its recommendations.
Of the skit that led to his downfall, Braden said, "I was not paying particular attention to the skits. It was not my intent to review them or to be part of them.
"The final banner in the skit was the inappropriate one. The contents of this banner came as a surprise. I did not expect to read what was on the banner and as such could not prevent its release," he added.
According to Braden, immediately after the show ended he pulled Capt. George L. Moe aside and expressed his concern over the offensive skit. Moe, commanding officer of VF 124, a fighter squadron, was in charge of the follies.
The morning after the Tomcat Follies, Braden expressed his concern about the inappropriate skit to Capt. Curtiss Schantz, the Miramar base commander, Braden said.
Kelly's decision to strip him of command devastated him, Braden said. He said that he was also hurt by former acting Navy Secretary J. Daniel Howard's comments about the Tomcat Follies on July 3.
But he also said that Kelly had little choice but to discipline him and the other officers, regardless of the investigation's findings, because of Howard's earlier comments.
"Secretary Howard used the words 'jerks and idiots at Miramar' to describe us. . . . Because of that, I knew it was going to be awfully hard for the Navy to find an equitable solution for this incident," Braden said.
"I certainly regret that the Tomcat Follies . . . put the Navy in this situation," he said. "All of us in the Navy are sensitive to events that can put the Navy in a bad light, especially after Tailhook. . . . Obviously, there were some skits that caused the Navy embarrassment, and I'm truly regretful," Braden said.