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Tailhook Leaders Hope to Renew Ties to Navy : Military: Association works to improve image after sex scandal. Pilots say conventions turned raunchy after film ‘Top Gun’ glorified womanizing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In two weeks, it will be the first anniversary of the infamous Tailhook Convention in Las Vegas, where a large group of male pilots sexually molested and harassed women in a hotel hallway and inside party rooms, initiating a year of turmoil and tarnishing the Navy.

And while the Defense Department investigation to identify the pilots involved continues, leaders of the Tailhook Assn. are trying to re-establish official ties to the Navy, which has cut them off after 35 years, leading to the cancellation of this year’s convention.

Chastened Tailhook officials acknowledge that their organization will never be the same. They say they have made fundamental changes to avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco. The new Tailhook Assn., they say, will bear a close resemblance to the original one: an informal, out-of-uniform gathering of Navy pilots to discuss carrier aviation, technical advances, tactics and weapons.

The booze, the hospitality suites, the raunchy behavior and the other sideshow activities that gradually came to dominate the convention are out, banned by Tailhook officials who now say they were too slow to recognize the cancer within.

“We’ve been dragged through the mud for almost a year, and we’ve willingly taken the shots for the Navy,” said association spokesman Steve Millikin. “I hope the Navy’s leaders agree that we’ve spent our time in the penalty box. We want out so we can work together with the Navy to find a solution to this serious problem of sexual harassment. . . . We’ve picked a persistent scab in focusing on this issue.”

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Tailhook officials said the group has planned some important changes for the next convention, whenever it is held. For starters, squadrons will not be permitted to be hosts of hospitality suites.

The hospitality suites have been the source of most of the Tailhook Assn.'s headaches over the past six years, when, members said, the conventions and accompanying parties turned raunchier and rowdier.

Until about 10 years ago, the suites were sponsored by defense contractors and were located at different hotels or on different floors of the same hotels.

In those days, the admirals and other senior officers would retire to the contractors’ suites after the symposiums while the junior officers headed for the casinos, said Nick Criss, a retired Navy aviator who has attended Tailhook conventions for about 25 years.

Sometime in the early 1980s the Pentagon imposed strict guidelines forbidding military officers to accept favors or gratuities from defense contractors.

“When that happened, individual squadrons picked up the slack by requiring each officer to pitch in for the cost of a suite. That’s how squadrons ended up hosting hospitality suites,” Criss said.

Most of the harassment and assaults at last year’s convention in September occurred in the squadron suites--which featured pornographic movies, phallic symbols and a seemingly endless supply of alcohol--and in the hallway that connected the suites.

“We’ve had a very loose control policy in the past. The hospitality suites were the party arena. We’re going to eliminate that type of activity,” said Ron Thomas, Tailhook’s executive director.

The conventions, held at the Las Vegas Hilton for many years, attracted female college students, groupies and hangers-on looking to party and meet Navy aviators. Recently, Hilton officials informed the Tailhook board of directors that its business is no longer welcomed at Hilton hotels.

To keep the convention on a more professional level, Millikin said that alcohol will no longer be allowed at symposiums.

Millikin and other association officials have decried the sexual misconduct of some aviators at the 1991 convention, but bawdy behavior has been a trademark of the Tailhook convention for years.

“Ball walking” and “butt rodeo” by officers have been popular attractions at Tailhook conventions for years, said longtime attendees. In the first, aviators walk around a casino or other public places with one testicle hanging out.

Another aviator described butt rodeo as an event where an officer gets on his hands and knees, sneaks up behind an unsuspecting woman, bites her rear end “and hangs on for as long as he can.”

The squadron suite with “Dr. Gillette” was also a popular Tailhook attraction. Dr. Gillette is an aviator who uses a razor to shave the legs and other body parts of willing females, several aviators said.

Aviators said that women “also return the favor” by doing “package checks.” In a package check, a woman walks up to an aviator, yells “package check,” and grabs the man’s crotch.

Veteran aviators and retirees said the after-hours activities at Tailhook conventions took a raunchier turn in 1986, after the release of the movie “Top Gun.” The film, starring Tom Cruise, offered a glorified image of hard-drinking, womanizing fighter pilots who train at the Navy’s famed Top Gun school at Miramar.

“Prior to 1985 the only thing that happened at Tailhook was damage to the hotel. Normally, it had little to do with women because there were few women there, other than women who dated Navy guys,” said Criss, a retired commander and former commanding officer of the Top Gun’s adversary squadron.

But that changed after the movie.

“Suddenly, we were the superstars of the known world. Women were coming out of the woodwork and every one of them wanted to date a Navy aviator. . . . We began seeing all these junior officers, little Tom Cruises, running around in their flight suits. They honestly believed the Navy was like the movie. I think to some extent the Navy itself started believing it was like the movie,” said Criss, a fighter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam.

Millikin agreed.

“All this Tom Cruise stuff crystallized into a message. Unfortunately, the wrong message,” Millikin said.

Lost in the controversy over the sexual harassment and attacks at the 1991 convention, Tailhook officials said, is that the group had no authority over the aviators who rented the hospitality suites.

“We’re a private, nonprofit corporation with no control or authority over the conduct of active-duty personnel, whether they are on or off duty,” Millikin said. “It’s the Navy leadership’s responsibility to oversee the conduct of their officers at all time.

“We also informed the Navy about the harassment and assaults immediately after learning of these incidents,” Millikin added. “We also called for the punishment of those engaged in sexual misconduct, but this, too, has been overlooked by many in the media and Navy.”

According to Millikin and Thomas, the association’s role at the convention has always been limited to organizing a three-day symposium, where line aviators have an opportunity to discuss weapons, tactics and policy with defense contractors and the Navy brass, including the secretary of the Navy. The group also sponsors a banquet on the last night of the convention.

Attending last year’s convention were then-Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III and the Navy’s top officers.

Although the Tailhook Assn. has promised changes and wants to re-establish ties, that might not be enough, at least in the near-future.

Standing between the association and the Navy is the Defense Department investigation aimed at hundreds of Navy and Marine officers, many of whom are association members suspected of sexual misconduct and criminal wrongdoing at last year’s convention. The investigation is looking at those responsible for sexual attacks and harassment against more than 25 women, including 13 female Navy officers.

The Navy moved quickly last year to sever any official relationship with Tailhook, ending the longstanding relationship one month after the group’s Sept. 5-8 convention. The association has been put off limits to active-duty personnel.

In an effort to improve Tailhook’s image, officials of the group recently hired a public relations firm to give what they said is their side of the sex scandal. This month, the Tailhook Assn. issued a public apology to the victims of the sexual harassment and attacks at the convention.

Group officials hope that the apology and changes in the organization will get them back in the Navy fold.

“We have a huge number of supporters in Washington among the admirals and others with ties to carrier aviation. There’s a quiet door-knocking campaign going on on our behalf. I’m confident that the door will be open to us again someday soon,” Millikin said.


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