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Navy Secretary orders disciplinary action in Tailhook scandal

WASHINGTON -- Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III has ordered disciplinary action be taken against 70 officers including many allegedly involved in mass sexual harassment during an aviators' convention in Las Vegas last September, according to documents the Navy released Wednesday.

'The conduct of certain of our Naval aviators during the Tailhook convention last September, and during the ensuing investigation, has stained the fabric of this institution,' Garrett wrote in a June 2 memorandum to the chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, and the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr.

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'The inexcusable conduct of some naval aviators in Las Vegas,' he wrote, 'compounded by their subsequent refusal to assume responsibility for their conduct, has brought shame upon them personally and upon the Navy and Marine Corps as a whole.'

'We cannot -- and will not -- tolerate the demeaning and insensitive behavior and attitudes of the past,' Garrett wrote, 'Our goal in the Department of the Navy must be to cultivate through education an environment where actions demeaning to women are as a matter of course considered unacceptable and, even more, where behavior and attitudes reflect respect for women and the valuable contribution they make as an integral part of the Navy/Marine Corps team.'

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Garrett directed that the commanders of the 70 officers allegedly involved in the sexual misconduct, or a subsequent coverup of it, take appropriate disciplinary action against them.

The 70 include six suspected of actual assaults on women, 57 who had been present at the assaults or in 'other areas where inappropriate conduct occurred,' five 'suspected of violating standards of conduct' and two suspected of hindering or impeding the naval inspector general's investigation of the incident.

At the Tailhook Association's convention last September, at least 25 women, more than half of whom were naval officers, were sexually assaulted, many by being forced to run a 'gauntlet' of drunken aviators who forcefully fondled them as they passed.

The eight month investigation by the inspector general, whose report was released last April, found that the conference was 'permeated' with an 'atmosphere which ... promoted the abuse of women and the excessive use of alcohol.'

The report cited 'hospitality suites' where alcohol was dispensed up to 24 hours a day and where the entertainment included striptease acts, pornographic films and coeducational sexual self-exposure.

The report found that such activities, including the 'gauntlet,' were something of a tradition at conventions of Tailhook, a private group of active and retired naval aviators, and had persisted despite efforts of some concerned officers to end them.

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'The gauntlet,' it said, 'has existed for at least the last two years, and most likely back to 1986.'

The inspector general, Rear Adm. George W. Davis VI, complained that his office's investigation was hampered by many of the 1,500 Navy and Marine Corps participants it interviewed.

'Few participants interviewed during the investigation would talk openly about their activities or the activities they witnessed,' his report said, 'Closing ranks and obfuscation were the predominant responses to the questions posed.'

The investigators found that few of those interviewed seemed to comprehend 'that the actions which occurred ... constituted at a minimum sexual harassment and in many cases criminal sexual assault.'

'A common thread running through the overwhelming majority of the interviews concerning Tailhook '91,' the report said, 'was: 'What's the big deal?''

The Tailhook Association, which takes its name from the arresting gear unique to aircraft which permits them to land on aircraft carrier decks, includes more than 16,000 Marine and Naval aviators.

Before last September's incident, the Navy officially supported the organization, flying 1,730 convention participants to Las Vegas on naval aircraft. Garrett terminated such support last fall after learning of the alleged sexual harassment.

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Garrett's letter to the Navy and Marine Corps service chiefs directs their major subordinate commands to interview each of their subordinate aviation squadron commanders and 'to take such additional steps as may be necessary to assess performance by these commanding officers of their leadership responsibilities.'

'As sponsors of hospitality suites at the Tailhook convention,' it says, 'squadron commanding officers bear a unique leadership responsibility for activities which occurred in and around those suites. '

The secretary further ordered the formation of a Standing Committee on Women in the Navy and Marine Corps to enhance opportunities for women in the services, eliminate demeaning behavior and attitudes toward women and ensure that all Navy and Marine Corps personnel respect women's rights, concerns and contributions.

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