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140 Officers Faulted in Tailhook Sex Scandal : Inquiry: Seven-month review of the infamous 1991 convention also blames Navy brass for a leadership vacuum that allowed a 'free fire zone' of debauchery and assaults.

April 24, 1993|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department, releasing the results of a seven-month investigation Friday, accused about 140 Navy and Marine Corps officers of sexual assaults or other misconduct in connection with the infamous Tailhook convention of 1991 and charged that the behavior stemmed from "a serious breakdown of leadership."

The report methodically chronicled a rowdy three-day party at which 97 sexual assaults and a host of lesser offenses occurred. Those findings were in stark contrast to the Navy's original investigation of the incident, which produced just two primary suspects and led investigators to complain that officers had closed ranks to hide the truth.

More than 4,000 officers, including 35 Navy admirals and two Marine Corps generals, attended the convention at a Las Vegas hotel, consuming $33,500 worth of alcohol. Among them was Adm. Frank B. Kelso, as chief of naval operations the Navy's top officer, who presented the report Friday.

While Navy and Marine Corps aviators engaged in such conduct as groping and fondling women--including 24 female officers--in a hallway "gantlet," senior officers "seemed to be relatively unaware" of the misconduct, the report said. Similar behavior had occurred at past Tailhook conventions and many of the high-ranking officers had attended those events as junior officers.

In a press conference Friday, President Clinton called the conduct detailed in the report "very disturbing" and said that it "has no place in the armed services." But Clinton was careful to avoid judgment on individual charges, saying that they "will have to be examined" in military courts free from political pressure. "The law must take its course," he said.

More than 46 younger officers could face courts-martial or lesser punishment on charges of sexual assault or indecent exposure. The Defense Department's inspector general, however, stopped short of recommending punishment for senior officers.

Instead, Inspector General Derek J. Vander Schaaf urged each of the admirals and generals to "consider the extent to which he bears some personal responsibility for what occurred there and how best he can serve the Navy and the Marine Corps in the future."

The report said that the attendees "viewed the annual conference as a type of 'free fire zone' wherein they could act indiscriminately and without fear of censure or retribution in matters of sexual conduct or drunkenness."

The long-delayed report ends a chapter of uncertainty and turmoil for the military and begins what officials hope will be a new era of respect and expanded opportunities for women.

"We cannot undo the past, but we sure can influence the future and we are," Kelso said. "We have emerged from this experience a better, more effective, stronger institution."

Kelso noted that the Navy has instituted strict new penalties for those found guilty of sexual harassment, launched a vigorous program of anti-harassment training for its personnel and proposed to open jobs on many combat ships to women for the first time.

"We are . . . committed to providing all our people a workplace free from harassment," Kelso said. "We haven't solved the problem completely--it takes a long time to change attitudes. But we understand the problem, and we have moved out to fix it."

The Defense Department report detailed highly disrespectful attitudes and behaviors toward women by male members of the Tailhook Assn., which takes its name from an aircraft mechanism critical to carrier landings. Members include active duty and reserve pilots, all of whom are officers, as well as retired naval aviators and civilian boosters.

In one squadron suite, aviators wore T-shirts emblazoned with the mottoes "Women Are Property" on the back and "He-Man Woman-Hater's Club" on the front. Among the many officers who apparently opposed the introduction of women into combat cockpits, some wore pins that read, "Not in My Squadron."

Kelso said flatly that he "was not going to resign" over the incident, which had already led to the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III last summer. "What I'm going to do is continue to work to fix it," Kelso said.

Kelso and John Dalton, the Clinton Administration's newly named secretary of the Navy, also will have to oversee what is expected to be the final, legal chapter of Tailhook, in which potentially dozens of officers could be subjected to punishment ranging from "counseling sessions" with senior officers to incarceration, fines and eventual expulsion from the service.

Vander Schaaf, in a letter accompanying the report, told Defense Secretary Les Aspin that he had forwarded the investigative files of 140 officers to the office of the Navy secretary for possible punishment. Apparently included are the files of 51 individuals who, Vander Schaaf wrote, "were found to have made false statements to us during our investigation."

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