U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

H. Lawrence Garrett III, secretary of the U.S. Navy, was forced to resign after investigators looking into sexual assault charges at the 1991 Tailhook convention of naval aviators revealed that he was in attendance but did nothing to stop the assaults, harassment, and abuse of mostly female aviators and other women. As a result of the scandal, the Navy severed all ties to the Tailhook Association until 1999.

Summary of Event

Sponsors of the 1991 Tailhook Association Conference of naval aviators at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel in Nevada promised that year’s gathering would be special. The Tailhook Tailhook Association Association, named for the hook that aids an aviator in landing a jet or other aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier, had been organizing an annual event for more than thirty years; for two decades Las Vegas had been the conference’s home. Many U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviators from around the world converged on the city for three days in September, ostensibly to attend professional seminars and examine the latest aviation and war-fighting equipment displayed by vendors who helped underwrite the conference. [kw]Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal, U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of (June 26, 1992) Garrett, H. Lawrence, III Tailhook sexual assault scandal Navy, U.S.;Tailhook scandal Sexual harassment;in Navy[Navy] Garrett, H. Lawrence, III Tailhook sexual assault scandal Navy, U.S.;Tailhook scandal Sexual harassment;in Navy[Navy] [g]United States;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] [c]Politics;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] [c]Military;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] [c]Government;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] [c]Women’s issues;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] [c]Space and aviation;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] [c]Sex crimes;June 26, 1992: U.S. Navy Secretary Resigns in the Wake of Tailhook Sexual Assault Scandal[02580] Kelso, Frank B., Jr. Dunleavy, Richard M. Coughlin, Paula Vander Schaaf, Derek Snyder, John W., Jr. Pope, Barbara S. Howard, J. Daniel

Former Navy lieutenant Paula Coughlin, right, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in September, 1991.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Most aviators in attendance at Tailhook over the years were men. Women had been excluded from careers in naval aviation until the mid-1970’s and excluded as fighter pilots until 1993, thereby reducing the number of female aviators who would have attended Tailhook. In practice, the convention had become a place for attendees to let inhibitions run wild—in other words, to party. While few wives or female aviators attended Tailhook, women from the Las Vegas area and other communities were lured to the convention on the promise of being able to spend time with the aviators. The junior officers routinely engaged in inappropriate behavior that included sexual misconduct and vandalism. Senior officers seemed to tacitly approve the behavior, as many did the same as junior officers, participating in the annual series of pranks. Among attendees in 1991 were nearly three dozen senior officers, including the chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Frank B. Kelso, Jr.; his assistant for air operations, Vice Admiral Richard M. Dunleavy; and the secretary of the Navy, H. Lawrence Garrett III.

Among the more flamboyant rites at Tailhook was the gauntlet, a cordon of aviators who made it a practice of fondling, groping, or otherwise hassling any woman who wandered down the hotel corridor where they gathered. On September 7, Navy lieutenant Paula Coughlin, an aviator then working as an aide to Rear Admiral John Snyder, commander of the Naval Test Center in Patuxent, Maryland, was forced to pass through the gauntlet and was assaulted by dozens of her male colleagues, despite her efforts to fight them off. Rather than ignore the incident, as many other women had done, Coughlin determined to see the perpetrators punished for what was nothing less than sexual assault.

The response to Coughlin’s complaint by naval leadership was far from satisfactory. Although she reported the incident to Snyder the day after it occurred, he did nothing initially, telling her she should have expected such behavior under the circumstances. Coughlin pressed her case, going directly to the chief of Naval Operations for some resolution. Not until late October, however, did Secretary Garrett become aware of Coughlin’s allegations. He decided some action was necessary. Within weeks, Snyder was relieved of his command, and separate investigations were launched by the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and the Navy’s Inspector General (IG).

During the months these investigations were underway, stories of Tailhook misdeeds began surfacing within the Navy and in the press, further escalating the gravity of the situation for Navy officials. There were calls from Congress members for the Navy to take this matter seriously, and legislators threatened to hold up all naval officer promotions until there were assurances that those nominated for promotion had not participated in illegal activities at Tailhook. These pressures notwithstanding, when the NIS and IG submitted their reports to Garrett, about two dozen possible victims were identified and only two officers were named as possible perpetrators. Furthermore, the reports recommended only mild reforms.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Barbara S. Pope, the first woman to serve as assistant secretary in the Navy’s history, urged Garrett to delve deeper into the matter, and he in turn asked the U.S. Department of Defense to launch a new investigation. Derek Vander Schaaf, a deputy inspector general at the Pentagon, headed up the new investigative team. The team would also look into the environment that allowed such behavior to occur with seeming impunity. Initially, Vander Schaaf’s investigators met with a wall of silence, as most aviators refused to reveal any details of what they might have seen or done. Senior leaders were no more helpful. Nevertheless, as reports of junior officers’ behavior continued to surface, people outside the Navy began arguing that high-ranking officers and others within the service—and not simply junior officers—should be held accountable for their behavior.

Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

Meanwhile, an appendix to one of the Navy’s investigations revealed that despite Garrett’s assurances that he had not been near any inappropriate or illegal activities at Tailhook 1991, evidence shows that he was seen at a party adjacent to the location of the infamous gauntlet. This information was made public in June, 1992, the same month Coughlin told her story on national television. It was becoming apparent to members of the Bush, George H. W. George H. W. Bush administration that Garrett was a liability. At the encouragement of officials in the White House, he submitted his resignation on June 26. Undersecretary of the Navy J. Daniel Howard was named acting secretary. He immediately issued a series of orders directing the Navy and Marine Corps to take more serious measures to address issues of sexual harassment and more fully integrate women into all positions within the services.

The release of Vander Schaaf’s report later in the year made apparent the extent of the scandal. More than seventy women had been assaulted at Tailhook 1991, and more than one hundred male officers—and not only two, as the NIS and IG reports claimed—were suspected of participating in the assaults or other inappropriate activities. Moreover, the report was highly critical of senior Navy and Marine Corps leadership for condoning these activities—and in some cases encouraging them.

Vander Schaaf also faulted the Navy for conducting what was essentially a whitewash of Coughlin’s claims and for inhibiting his investigation out of a misguided sense of loyalty within the aviation community and the Navy and Marine Corps as a whole. Furthermore, his report made it clear that a hostile climate existed in both services for women wishing to pursue careers that could lead them to positions of responsibility equal to their male counterparts.

Impact

The Bush administration moved quickly to restore stability at the top of the Department of the Navy, naming Garrett’s permanent replacement within a month of his departure. In the next eighteen months, Dunleavy, charged with having personal knowledge of the gauntlet and failing to do anything to halt it, was forced to retire at a reduced rank. Other officers were similarly pressured into retirement or reassigned from key positions into less prestigious ones. Although these changes at the top of the military chain of command had some immediate impact on the management of the service, the more significant impact of the Tailhook scandal on the Navy occurred through the next decade.

New regulations required full integration of women into the service, the establishment of an office to focus on women in the Navy, and the development of a series of programs to educate officers, sailors, and Marines in matters regarding appropriate treatment of women in uniform. All of these changes had some positive effect on working conditions for women in the Navy. Nevertheless, subsequent incidents of inappropriate behavior, including sexual assault, within the fleet and at the U.S. Naval Academy Naval Academy, U.S.;sexual harassment at proved that the disrespect for and resistance to women in the Navy were far from being eliminated. Garrett, H. Lawrence, III Tailhook sexual assault scandal Navy, U.S.;Tailhook scandal Sexual harassment;in Navy[Navy]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donovan, Aine, et al., eds. Ethics for Military Leaders. Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon & Schuster Educational, 1998. Explores the ethical implications of the Tailhook scandal. Includes a chronology, excerpts from the Department of Defense investigative report on the scandal, and essays presenting opposing viewpoints regarding the Navy’s conduct in handling the matter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ebbert, Jean, and Marie-Beth Hall. Crossed Currents: Navy Women from World War I to Tailhook. Washington, D.C.: Brassey, 1993. Describes the Tailhook scandal and the impact of the Navy’s initial attempts to downplay the serious nature of the sexual harassment and assault charges.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. Comments on the Tailhook scandal in the context of women’s struggle to be accepted as naval aviators and colleagues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMichael, William H. The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the U.S. Navy’s Tailhook Scandal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997. Detailed analysis of the 1991 convention and its aftermath. Explores the impact of the various investigations of the Navy and the military in general. Provides mitigating evidence that exonerates some who were not directly involved in incidences of sexual harassment and assault.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmerman, Jean. Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Examines the implications of the Tailhook scandal for women in the military, focusing specifically on its impact on the potential for women to serve in combat alongside their male colleagues.

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