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Sexual assaults in military: 'Little monsters' now in charge

Paula Coughlin was grocery shopping in Jacksonville, Fla., when I caught up with her on the phone this week. If anyone has an interesting perspective on the U.S. military’s absurd inability to deal with sexual assault, it’s Coughlin. She is the former Navy lieutenant who blew the lid off the tawdry goings on at the 1991 gathering of Naval aviators known as the Tailhook Assn. Symposium.

In a third-floor corridor of the Las Vegas Hilton, she was sexually attacked by fellow flyers. When the Navy failed to act on her complaint, she went public. The ensuing news coverage created a national scandal, and pulled back the curtain on the Navy’s mistreatment of women.

How rewarding it was back then to hear Pentagon brass say with great sincerity that the United States military had “zero tolerance” for sex crimes.

That was two decades ago. They’ve been parroting those same, tired words ever since. What we need is zero tolerance for “zero tolerance.”

“The one lesson they have learned out of Tailhook is try not to air your bad behavior because that does bring scrutiny,” Coughlin said. “Instead of saying, ‘This kind of misogynistic behavior is unprofessional and undermines the mission and stop it,’ they said, ‘Look, you guys got caught, be cool, keep it under wraps.’ "

How else to explain the decision of Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin,  the commander who dismissed the conviction of fellow pilot Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault at Aviano Air Base in Italy after crawling into bed with a sleeping houseguest, fondling and digitally penetrating her?

Or that a Air Force officer in charge of sexual assault prevention has been arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman in an Arlington, Va., parking lot?

Or that a soldier who works in the sexual assault prevention office at Ft. Hood is being investigated for possibly assaulting subordinates and “pandering”?

Or that sexual assaults, according to a new Pentagon report, have increased 35% in the last two years?

“It’s just really disappointing,” said Coughlin, 51, who owns a yoga studio, a practice she took up when the stress of the Tailhook ordeal and its aftermath made her suicidal.

“They haven’t changed any of their attitudes. In 20 years, there have been a couple of generations of leadership in the Pentagon. In the hallway at the Las Vegas Hilton, they were teaching the aviators and these lieutenants how to be monsters. And just as I feared, those little monsters are becoming commanding officers and haven’t learned anything.”

After keeping a low profile, Coughlin has become active in the fight to reform the military.

She is featured in a new mini-documentary, on the New York Times website, that revisits the Tailhook scandal.

She was interviewed in “The Invisible War,” Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the epidemic of rape in the military. “That was such an unpleasant wake-up call to just how badly the military has unraveled and just how much service members are being cannibalized by other service members,” she said. “It’s just medieval.”

Coughlin also speaks on behalf of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military, whose president, Nancy Parrish, has demanded that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel fire Franklin for exonerating Wilkerson. 

Protect Our Defenders is also pushing for Congress to remove responsibility for investigating sexual assaults in the military out of the chain of command to avoid the sort of criminal spree that took place at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio,where dozens of victims were assaulted by  instructors, sometimes in storerooms and closets.

When the House Armed Services Committee focused on the scandal in January, not a single Lackland victim was invited to testify. Nor were any Lackland victims’ accounts included in the Air Force’s report to Congress, as Rep. Jackie Speier, the San Matea Democrat, noted. Speier was “incredulous” that no victims had been interviewed by the Air Force, which claimed to have devoted 40,000 hours to its investigation.

Coughlin said no one in the military has ever invited her to share her experience, and she doesn’t expect anyone ever will. “They are perpetrator-centric,” she said, “not victim-centric.” 

That much is clear in the comments made by Gen. Edward Rice, head of the Air Force training command at Lackland, who said last November that instructors will be given extra training to become more vigilant about abuses of power.

“And we’ve put additional rigor into helping them understand that for the first time many of them are going to have a significant level of power and how that can be insidiously impactful to them over time.”

Insidiously impactful to them?

Beyond clueless.

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Twitter: @robinabcarian

Email: robin.abcarian@latimes.com 

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