Almost 11 months after the Tailhook sexual abuse scandal rocked the Navy, thousands of women and men at Ventura County’s two big Navy bases have been ordered to attend crash courses dealing with sexual harassment.
Military and civilian personnel--along with their colleagues at other Navy bases nationwide--will watch and listen to Pentagon-designed films and lectures.
At the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, approximately 8,000 military and civilian personnel will attend sensitivity sessions at the base theater beginning Monday.
A similar program begins in about two weeks for 6,000 Navy officers, enlisted personnel and civilians at the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station. Several Point Mugu pilots attended the Tailhook Assn. reunion last year.
“It’s the conversation any time anybody gets together with the latest revelation,” said an exasperated Capt. Paul J. Valovich, the air station’s commander. “It’s a big deal.”
All military and civilian personnel on the two bases must receive about eight hours of special instruction. Attendance is required.
“It’s an extra-special program,” said Bob Hubbert, Point Mugu’s deputy public affairs officer. “Everyone has been ordered to go to hear experts talk on relationships between sexes.”
So sensitized is the Navy to the sexual harassment issue that Hubbert himself recently came under fire for touching an enlisted man during a meeting. The perceived offense could end up as a written report in Hubbert’s personnel file, he said.
“More and more you walk around here with your arms folded,” said a miffed Hubbert. “I’m not even sure it’s right to shake hands anymore.”
The mandatory base lectures grew out of alleged sexual incidents which occurred last September in the corridor of a Las Vegas hotel during the annual Tailhook Assn. convention. More than 4,000 people, including active and retired Navy pilots, attended the event.
The San Diego-based organization, which promotes Navy and Marine aviation, is named after the device that snags the arresting cable as a plane lands on an aircraft carrier.
As many as two dozen women allege that sometime on that September night at the Las Vegas Hilton, they were subject to verbal and physical abuse when they were forced to run a gantlet of male officers in a hotel hallway.
Since then, Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned to take responsibility for the scandal; the Naval Investigative Service has been pulled off the case and the Pentagon has ordered a new team to find out what happened; and about 4,000 Navy promotions have been held up by Congress, whose members want to know if any of the candidates attended the Tailhook convention.
Yet, almost a year later, no one has been formally charged with wrongdoing. Valovich, a veteran jet fighter pilot, is openly frustrated.
“Sexual harassment is wrong,” said Valovich, 49, who attended last year’s Tailhook gathering. “There’s no way you can justify what happened to Paula Coughlin (a Navy pilot and the first woman to go public with Tailhook sexual abuse charges).
“That is wrong. The guys who did it ought to be hammered and court-martialed and kicked out of the Navy. There’s no doubt about that.”
But Valovich, who flew more than 200 missions in Vietnam, said that to smear “the guys who wear wings, a pretty select group of guys who have done amazing things,” is unjust.
“To taint them as sexual perverts, drunks--that isn’t the way it is,” he said in an interview in a base conference room.
Valovich and a group of nine Navy officers and enlisted personnel agreed to discuss the aftermath of the Tailhook incident last week in interviews at Point Mugu. Most of those interviewed, selected by the Navy, minimized the extent of sexual harassment at Navy facilities in Ventura County.
Some members of the group blamed the news media for exaggerating the problem.
“A few bad apples are spoiling the whole idea of the Navy in general,” said Senior Chief Wendy Stace, 38, an air traffic controller. “Any time something bad happens, it gets blown way out of proportion.”
For the media, said Lt. John Tinsley, 30, an F-18 jet fighter pilot, the Tailhook affair was “like blood in the water. Here’s something bad and I’m going to focus on it. You have people losing their jobs and that’s not fair.”
The Navy, Tinsley said, is a place where “99.9% of the people don’t behave like we’re portrayed in the press. We have males and females working side by side doing the same job, and they’re both capable of it and we think nothing of it.
“We’re getting a bad rap.”
Some of the Navy veterans spoke of perceiving and experiencing bias and patronizing attitudes toward service women and minorities several years ago. But now, they declared, the Navy has made significant strides toward stamping out bigotry and sexism.
“Early in my career, I observed discriminatory remarks,” said Cmdr. Nan Benson-Schlax, 39, a supply officer and an 18-year Navy veteran.
The tasteless remarks, she said, went something like this: “Well, now that you’re married it really doesn’t matter where we put you in a particular command because you’re probably going to be quitting in a few months.”
Or, she said, “a senior officer might tell me, “Oh, you’re married? Are you planning on getting pregnant and leaving?’ ”
Since then, Benson-Schlax said, she has served aboard a submarine tender and a destroyer tender and never observed any sexual harassment aboard the ships. She talked of “a maturing of behavior” in the Navy.
But deep-rooted personal biases--which she called “closely held attitudes"--may be more difficult to change, she said.
“And in the end,” she said, “it’s the attitudes that will really make a difference. But behavior can be modified and it has been modified. I’ve seen that.”
Another aspect of the Navy’s continuing interest in detecting such problems is the service’s monitoring of sexual harassment allegations, said Aviation Electronic Technician Michael Russell.
“The Navy does not pretend to sweep problems like these under the table,” said Russell, 37. “Last year, a Navy study showed 42% of enlisted women had been harassed in some way, shape or form. Approximately 26% of (female) officers said that, too.”
Russell, who also is a Navy grievance counselor, said the Navy attempts to resolve such complaints at a low command level “on an informal basis, first, if possible.”
None of the women interviewed said they had experienced an act of overt sexual harassment, however.
That was not the case with Lt. Cmdr. Kyra Pauli, 33, who works nearby at the Port Heuneme base. She recalled during her first tour of duty 11 years ago in the West Indies that a Navy warrant officer who was a heavy drinker verbally assaulted her with sexual remarks.
“He was very forward,” she said. “But I didn’t take him seriously. I didn’t report him. His big problem was alcohol.”
Then, in 1985, she said she was excluded from a meeting at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Navy base “because I was a woman.” She said the Navy immediately launched an investigation.
“The Navy was concerned that no discrimination or harassment should occur,” she said. “That really meant a lot to me.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Lovay Palacio, 32, an air traffic controller at Point Mugu, sees the Navy turning the Tailhook controversy into positive action that can lead to greater understanding of sexual harassment issues.
“It’s an educational process, it’s increasing awareness, the importance of being a professional, doing your job and understanding what’s required of you and how your behavior may impact another person,” she said.
Enlightened Navy attitudes notwithstanding, the Tailhook scandal won’t soon disappear. The relentless interrogation by Defense Department investigators gnaws at Capt. Valovich, who was there that raucous night last September.
Valovich said he has twice told the following to Navy investigators:
“I was on the third floor for the whole time this stuff supposedly occurred. And I spent the whole evening walking among the suites.
“The perception was that there was a cover-up. That is not the truth. You could be there the whole evening and not know anything was going on out of the ordinary.”
The reunion, he said, became “a loud cocktail party, and a lot of guys talking with their hands. It was not sedate. But it was not a wild, crazy affair. It was a good time.
“I didn’t hear something had happened until three weeks later.”
Valovich said that one story he heard involved the serving of margaritas from a container in the shape of a rhinoceros in a suite at the hotel called the Rhinoceros Suite. To get a margarita, he said, guests had to pull a phallic-shaped handle.
“Some of the gals thought it was really cool to go directly and get a margarita by sucking on the rhinoceros,” Valovich said.
Looking back at the problems caused by the behavior of some of those attending Tailhook, that might not have been the wisest way of either serving or consuming drinks, Valovich conceded.
“But hindsight is always 20/20,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot worse.”
As for the renewed investigation, the 27-year Navy veteran said he was “disappointed that the thing has carried on for so long.”
In a sense, the entire service is on trial, he added.
“I am extremely proud of naval aviation, proud to be a naval aviator, a very honorable and wonderful profession,” Valovich said.
“I owe the Navy a lot. It’s been wonderful. To see naval aviation’s image tarnished like this, it’s wrong, it’s bull. . . . It’s not right.”