Holding the top echelon of the Navy and Marine Corps accountable for the Tailhook scandal, the Pentagon on Friday censured three admirals and reprimanded another 30 top-ranking officers for failing to stop or report sexual assaults or harassment that occurred while they were attending the group’s 1991 convention in Las Vegas.
The disciplinary actions were taken by Navy Secretary John Dalton with the approval of Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Among the 30 officers receiving reprimands was Adm. Frank B. Kelso, the nation’s top naval officer.
Dalton had earlier recommended that Kelso be removed from office for showing a “lack of leadership” over the incident, but he was overruled by Aspin last week.
The three letters of censure are considered grievous blemishes for officials of such high military rank. The lesser reprimands will become a part of the 30 officers’ permanent personnel files and may affect future assignments and promotions. Two other top officers were exonerated.
“The naval service has suffered greatly as a result of Tailhook,” Dalton said in announcing the punishments. “Some senior officers who were there failed to exercise active leadership and take the necessary actions to prevent behavior that was wrong.
“It’s clear to me there was a failure of appropriate leadership at Tailhook ’91.”
A Defense Department inspector general’s report earlier this year found that as many as 83 women were sexually assaulted or harassed and that 140 service members engaged in improper behavior during the convention. The activities ranged from attacking women along a hallway “gantlet” at the Las Vegas Hilton, to other incidents of crude nudity and indecent exposure.
The three harshest reprimands went to Vice Adm. Richard M. Dunleavy, and Rear Adms. Riley Mixson, director of Navy air warfare, and Wilson Flagg, his Reserve counterpart.
Dunleavy, assistant chief of naval operations for air warfare at the time of the convention, will retain a two-star rank instead of the three-star rank he had achieved when he retired in the summer of 1992. The penalty could cost him as much as $100,000 over his retirement.
“This is not a minor sanction,” Dalton said.
“More than any other individual, Adm. Dunleavy was responsible for the failures at Tailhook. His performance of duties after Tailhook was similarly flawed.”
Dunleavy, 60, who joined the Navy in 1955, could not be reached for comment. But in an interview with officials of the inspector general’s office, he acknowledged that he knew strippers were performing for male aviators and that he was aware of the activities during the gantlet.
His letter of censure said he “should have discouraged the atmosphere of hostility to women.”
Rather, the letter added, Dunleavy “condoned and did not act to terminate such conduct as the gantlet, mooning and the presence of strippers in the (hotel) hospitality suites.
“Of all the senior officers present at Tailhook ’91, your conduct was the most improper and your lack of leadership was the most significant.”
Mixson, a 35-year Navy veteran, returned three months before the Tailhook gathering from command of a three-carrier battle group during Operation Desert Storm.
“If by this action we have finally come one step closer to closing the book on this regrettable chapter in Naval aviation, then I am truly gratified,” said Mixson, 57. “I most of all regret the actions of a few which brought discredit to so many of our nation’s young heroes.”
But he added: “Tailhook in and of itself is a symbol of pride for carrier pilots, separating them from and above all the rest who take to the skies. We will work hard to re-instill that pride.”
His letter of censure stated that he knew of improprieties at past Tailhook conventions, but “did not take effective action to prevent a repetition of such conduct at Tailhook ’91.”
In one instance, he observed a woman drinking from a dispenser shaped liked a rhino’s penis, as well as other incidents, but did nothing to stop the conduct. “In failing to do so,” the reprimand said, “you exercised poor judgment.”
Flagg, a native of Long Beach and a 1961 graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., was also cited for being aware of previous crude behavior at Tailhook conventions, as well as failing to act when “a woman was touched or patted without her permission” during the 1991 session.
Flagg, 53, could not be reached for comment.
The reprimands for Mixson and Flagg “probably mean that their careers are over” and they likely will retire within the next year, according to one well-placed Pentagon source.
He added that even though the 30 other officers received non-punitive reprimands, they too now have serious blemishes on their careers.
“They’re all flag officers, and they should have known what was happening at Tailhook,” the source said. “They were there and should have made it their business to know.”
Rear Adm. William Newman and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Clyde Vermilyea, the two officers who were exonerated, only participated in an afternoon professional symposium at the convention and left immediately afterward. “They should not be identified with Tailhook in any way,” Dalton said.