NARRATION: 1991. The U.S. launches a ground and air war in the Persian Gulf. Among the troops are 40,000 American women, and not all the men like the idea.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-31-90):
SPEC. LARRY LOUIS: I don’t know exactly how these women are going to handle this. I think this should be a, you know, a man’s war here.
NARRATION: By law, women were not allowed in ground combat or fighter jets or combat ships. But many coveted those jobs, including Navy Lieutenant Paula Coughlin.
PAULA COUGHLIN (FORMER LIEUTENANT, U.S. NAVY): I grew up in a Navy family where we all understood you could do whatever you wanted to do in life. You just had to be hardworking and set your mind to it.
NARRATION: Coughlin wanted to be an aviator, like her father. But as a women, she was allowed to fly only support aircraft, like helicopters. She excelled, and landed a plum job as an admiral’s ide.
PAULA COUGHLIN: I was really confident that I would have a pretty long and successful career.
NARRATION: It was in the company of her boss that Coughlin attended the Tailhook convention in September 1991. She remembers this panel discussion where a question came up that was front and center for navy women at the time: whether women would ever be allowed to fly fighter jets like the men.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-29-92):
WOMAN: I was wondering, sir, when you plan to implement that and if it’s gonna be soon.
NARRATION: The male pilots in the audience started jeering even before they heard the answer. By not condemning the outburst, Coughlin believes the admiral sent an ominous message.
PAULA COUGHLIN: “Women are second-class citizens, and whether they can fly a jet or not, let’s party and have at it.” And that’s really how it all kind of played out.
NARRATION: It all played out on the hotel’s third floor, where convention after-parties turned ugly. Drunken aviators roamed the halls, exposing their genitals and attacking unsuspecting Navy and civilian women. When Lieutenant Coughlin entered this corridor packed with partiers, a crowd of male aviators surrounded her and pounced.
PAULA COUGHLIN: People were actually closing in and trying to pull my clothes off. I got knocked to the floor, and I kicked, and I punched, and I actually bit somebody who was reaching down my blouse.
NARRATION: She eventually escaped and later told her boss, Admiral John Snyder, about the incident. He promised to report it. Coughlin remembers him saying something else, something Snyder denies.
PAULA COUGHLIN: He told me, “That’s what you get when you go down a hallway full of drunk aviators. That’s what you get.”
BARBARA POPE (FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF THE NAVY): I chose to meet with her because I was appalled that nobody on behalf of the Navy had apologized, you know, to Paula and said, “I am sorry this occurred.”
NARRATION: Barbara Pope was then the Navy’s first female Assistant Secretary. She says from the start of the Tailhook Investigation, the Navy’s top men weren’t taking what happened seriously.
BARBARA POPE: They thought it was misbehavior. You know, some behavior that got outta hand. And they missed assault. You know, my point was that assault is criminal, you know. There’s no acceptable assault. If you are manhandled against your will, it’s assault.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-29-92):
DAN RATHER: Charges of sexual harassment by women who say they were manhandled at a gathering of Navy flyers.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-29-92):
DAVID MARTIN: Behind the specific assaults lies a macho culture which belittles women.
NARRATION: Seven months after Tailhook, the Navy issued its report. 1,500 officers were questioned, but only two were named as suspects, because most of the Navy men involved refused to cooperate. The investigation was led by Admiral Duvall “Mac” Williams.
BARBARA POPE: I said to Mac, “I’m not buying that nobody’s talking.” And Admiral Williams had said, “Well, you know, some of these women were kinda bringing it on themselves,” and that started my outrage, my indignation. And I said, “Nobody brings assault on themselves.” And he said, “Men and women cannot work together. It all comes down to sex.” This is the man who was in charge of the investigation.
NARRATION: In the wake of an apparent whitewash, Paula Coughlin took a radical step.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-24-92):
PETER JENNINGS: Until one woman came forward and said “enough,” there was a very a good chance it was going to be covered up.
NARRATION: Dressed in her uniform, Coughlin went on national television to demand that the men who had attacked her at Tailhook be brought to justice.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-10-94):
PAULA COUGHLIN: Not every man in the Navy behaves like that. But those who did shouldn’t remain in the Navy or the Marine Corps.
NARRATION: Coughlin’s media appearances transformed Tailhook from a Navy embarrassment to a national scandal. The Secretary of the Navy was forced to resign, and Congress temporarily froze 4,500 Navy promotions.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-24-92):
SEAN O’KEEFE: Sexual harassment will not be tolerated and those who don’t get the message will be driven from our ranks.
NARRATION: The new Navy Secretary, Sean O’Keefe, instituted gender sensitivity classes, closed officers’ drinking clubs, and set up a commission to study whether women should be allowed to serve on combat ships and planes. The changes made Paula Coughlin a hero to many women, but a pariah in the Navy.
PAULA COUGHLIN: I had to walk into a room full of naval aviators that felt like I had betrayed their tribe. I had to listen to a live talk show about how I had ruined the Navy and what a slut I was. I just was treading water and trying not to kill myself.
NARRATION: What really happened at the Tailhook Convention finally emerged in a blistering Pentagon report: 90 victims in all, 140 officers facing possible punishment. But in the end, while dozens of military careers were damaged, no one was criminally prosecuted. And with that, Paula Coughlin quit the Navy.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 1-8-96):
DAN RATHER: It’s been more than 4 years since the infamous Tailhook incident…
NARRATION: Tailhook exposed the sexual assault problem in the military, but the reforms did not end it. Navy petty officer Jenny McClendon was shocked at what she faced in 1999, just a few years after Tailhook.
JENNY MCCLENDON (FORMER PETTY OFFICER, U.S. NAVY): I presumed that I was going to join a group of people who were my comrades. When I got to the ship, it was a while before, it was probably a couple of months before we went from harassment to the groping, and the groping eventually culminated in several physical assaults and a few rapes.
NARRATION: She wasn’t alone. In 2008…
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 10-28-08):
REPRESENTATIVE JANE HARMAN: Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.
NARRATION: And in 2012 came news that 62 female recruits were sexually assaulted by their air force instructors. Paula Coughlin, who had married, started a business and put Tailhook behind her, felt compelled to step forward again.
PAULA COUGHLIN (GIVING A SPEECH): We represent over 500,000 veterans.
NARRATION: Working with the group Protect Our Defenders, she helped pressure Congress to hold hearings on the issue.
ARCHIVAL (CONGRESSIONAL HEARING, 2012):
GENERAL MARK A. WELSH III (FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF, U.S. AIR FORCE): We have been trying a number of programs, a number of training activities, a number of educational initiatives.
NARRATION: Since then, there has been some progress. Service members are reporting sexual assaults more often - over 6,000 in 2018. But that’s still a fraction of the 20,000 assaults that the Pentagon estimates took place that year.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, THIS MORNING, 12-12-17):
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JAY SILVERIA: We know that this is an underreported crime.
NARRATION: Buried in the data is another striking fact. Of those 20,000 assaults, 7,500 of the victims were men.
BRIAN LEWIS (FORMER PETTY OFFICER, U.S. NAVY): Rape is a crime about power and control. The military is very much about power and control.
NARRATION: Navy Petty Officer Brian Lewis says he was raped by a superior officer at knifepoint on a submarine base in 2000. He says he told his command about the rape, but men rarely do.
BRIAN LEWIS: A lot of it has to do with gender norms – that men cannot be victims; that you’re serving in the military, and you’re able to defend yourself against this aggression. And a lot of it is just… a lot of it is shame, at having had this happen.
NARRATION: Lewis says his case was never investigated.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 3-13-13):
BRIAN LEWIS: I was given a general discharge…
NARRATION: He told Congress that he was retaliated against and discharged with a diagnosis of personality disorder, something he says happens to many sexual assault victims.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 3-13-13):
BRIAN LEWIS: I’m here today because I am not alone, my story is all too common.
PAULA COUGHLIN: It’s like seeing America’s youth and the way that I used to be, so completely, virtuously enamored with the idea of serving your country, and then being so desperately betrayed.
NARRATION: Earlier this year, military officers were called back to Capitol Hill after revelations that sexual assaults at the service academies had nearly doubled since 2016. And at one hearing…
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 3-6-19):
SENATOR MARTHA MCSALLY: So like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor.
NARRATION: …Senator Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and the first female pilot to fly in combat, told her story.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 3-6-19):
SENATOR MARTHA MCSALLY: I was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer. I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences were handled. I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years over my despair.
NARRATION: The Department of Defense insists it prosecutes every case where sufficient evidence exists. But less than three percent of the incidents investigated last year resulted in a conviction.
PAULA COUGHLIN: I think that prosecuting rapists in the military is pretty vital to eradicating rapists in the military. And I know that sounds almost remedial, but it’s what’s not happening. Someone who commits a criminal offense in the military, like driving drunk, or doing drugs, or stealing hand grenades – boom – they go to jail. They get kicked out really quickly. But if you rape a woman, or you assault a man, you – “O-o-oh, wait a minute. You’re okay.”
NARRATION: Tailhook forced the military to begin addressing its sexual assault problem. But it had another unexpected legacy. The Pentagon commission formed in the wake of the scandal recommended lifting the age-old restrictions on the kinds of jobs women could hold. And within two years, the Navy and Air Force opened combat jobs to women. Since then, the Army and Marines have done the same.
ARCHIVAL (KTVU-TV 2018):
ANCHOR: Today 40 women Marines checked into the Marine combat training battalion at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.
NARRATION: With all occupations now open to women, the military is seeing healthy increases in female enlistment. Former Navy official Barbara Pope says says credit for much of that progress goes to Paula Coughlin and Tailhook.
BARBARA POPE: It forced the Department of Defense to look at: “Could women fly? Could women be commanding officers of warships?” And so the Navy will be forever indebted to her for, you know, forcing those changes. I mean sometimes you have to have a crisis to – to speed up change. And Tailhook was that.
PAULA COUGHLIN: For a long time, I – I said I was in the hallway. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I thought that for – I don’t know, ten – ten years at least. And then I started really considering that maybe I was in the right place at the right time. Somebody had to be there. Somebody had to be the one to start the ball rolling.