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Tailhook Behind Her, She Starts a New Life : Courts: Had she known how painful life would become, Paula Coughlin says she might have rethought the whole thing. But having won a civil suit, she says she can again be proud of herself.


"My mother always said to me, 'Right makes might.' At last, I can believe her." --Paula Coughlin

She has lost her career, most of her friends, and nearly a third of her weight. She has been called a man-hater and a slut, a disgrace to the Navy and a crybaby who should have known better.

But last week, a federal jury said that Paula Coughlin, the woman who blew the whistle on Tailhook, was right. She had been hurt and she had been wronged, and for that, said the jurors, she should be compensated to the tune of $6.7 million.

"Even if I never see one penny, it is worth it," says Coughlin, 32, without hesitation, "because for the first time in a very long time, I am proud of myself. I'll never forget how really, really bad it was, but I am very gratified by the fact that I had the strength to stick it out."

After deliberating for two hours, a federal jury ruled Oct. 28 that the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and its parent company was guilty of "oppression or malice" for its role in the sex-abuse scandal and awarded Coughlin $1.7 million in damages. Three days later, the jury returned to award her another $5 million in punitive damages.

Coughlin's suit charged the hotel chain with failing to provide adequate security during the notorious 1991 Tailhook aviators convention. Hilton Corp. Vice President Mark Grossman said last week that the decision will be appealed.

In her first interview since the verdict, Coughlin--the first of 12 women to take Tailhook-related charges to trial--told The Times that while the nightmares continue, she is ready to give herself "the luxury of assuming that life will return to normal."

"I used to just daydream about coming home to this," says the former helicopter pilot and admiral's aide from her cozy brick home in Virginia Beach, Va.

"All my mums are in full bloom and the pansies are ready to go in and it's a beautiful sunny day. I must still be in denial about all that's happened because I feel like it is my friend who just got back from Las Vegas and not me."

The seven-week trial was an ordeal, she said, but one she had been prepared for by years of attacks and counterattacks that preceded it.

From the morning after Tailhook when she reported the incident to her admiral, the Navy, she says, began punishing her for speaking out. Spokesmen for the Navy have said Coughlin's subsequent transfers and her ultimate grounding were a result of her mental instability, which they agree resulted from the stresses of Tailhook.

Before the trial began, Hilton lawyers asked her to produce every photograph taken of her from 1986 to 1993, every piece of clothing she'd worn during the three days of the Tailhook convention, and every piece of paper relating to the trip, including the receipt for a red silk dress she bought at Neiman Marcus.

Her mental stability was tested and retested at every turn by expert witnesses for the court, including a Hilton-hired psychiatrist who reported that Coughlin was indeed suffering "severe acute stress" as a result of the Tailhook attack. During the convention, she was groped and pawed by a line of men taunting her and chanting "Admiral's aide! Admiral's aide!" as they plunged their hands into her bra and grabbed her crotch in a Hilton hallway.

According to Dr. Richard Rahe, a Hilton witness, Coughlin's self-image was damaged because until Tailhook, she had viewed herself as "a full peer" with the Top Gun male aviators who later molested her. Rahe also found that Coughlin exhibited paranoia, but conceded that her belief she was being plotted against was "likely accurate."

Before the pressures of Tailhook forced her resignation in May, Coughlin was one of a handful of women entrusted by the Navy to pilot its biggest, meanest helicopter--the CH-53 Sea Stallion. Until Tailhook, she was "the best of the best," according to her San Diego lawyer Nancy Stagg.

Now, Coughlin says her Navy days are over. She will probably go back to college in January to train for a new--as yet undecided--career. "There are so many misconceptions of who I am and what I am. As much as I wish it weren't true, I don't see how I could ever go back. The Paula Coughlin Hate Club is still out there."

Despite her reputation as "the Rosa Parks of the '90s" and "the woman who changed the U.S. Navy," Coughlin believes that her victory in civil court may not erase the long tradition of military animosity toward women.

On Sunday, a Navy spokesman acknowledged that seven male instructors at a Navy school in San Diego are being investigated on charges they demanded sexual favors from women students in exchange for passing grades. Most of the allegations involve verbal harassment, with some physical abuse such as grabbing, the spokesman said.

Days before the Coughlin jury handed down its verdicts, 18 female cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point charged that some members of the football team had groped their breasts at a pep rally. Three cadets were later barred from the team.

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