Moments in History

What happens in Vegas, can sink a navy


20 years ago today several thousand Naval Aviators woke up with hangovers and said “Holy crap, thank god Facebook hasn’t been invented yet.”

The week of 8-12 September was the 35th annual symposium of the “Tailhook” association, which refers to a retractable hook underneath the tail of Naval aircraft, allowing them to catch an arresting wire on the flightdeck and stop quickly. Tailhook was formed in 1956 by active duty naval aviators as a non-profit fraternal organization supporting “the interests of sea-based aviation, with emphasis on aircraft carriers.”

At the time little known outside the “bird-farms” of the US Navy, I myself only heard mention of it in passing while hanging out in CATCC (Carrier air Traffic Control Center) on the USS Midway while stationed in Yokosuka Japan that fateful summer of 1991.

What followed would change everything.

This organization set up festivities at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas Nevada and had a rocking good time… the stuff that legends are made of, until things got just a bit out of control. Having come off a successful Desert Shield/Storm, and still glowing in superstardom from the 1986 Movie “Top Gun” naval pilots were at the pinnacle of coolness, and had an air of “untouchable” about them.

This, along with hundreds of years worth of traditions, attitudes and habits created a powder-keg that was about to collide with the modern information world in a really bad way. What actually happened that fateful week was only known to the few who were actually there, and probably accurately remembered by even fewer, but would thrust the organization along with the entire US Navy into a very harsh spotlight.

Suddenly everything was very different.

This happened almost exactly halfway through my 2 stints in the service, so I got a good taste of what life was like before and after. Prior to Tailhook my WWII veteran grandfather and I joked about how nearly everything was still the same over the last 50 years, same stories, same troubles, same food, same winks. We even worked on and used some of the same equipment on the same ships!

And we went through the same time-honored traditions and initiations, wearing the same uniforms. This was a real connection to the past, my past, OUR past that I was incredibly proud of. It wasn’t just pages in a history book or a half-spoken story by a solemn war veteran, it was real and we were part of it, part of the continuity.

After Tailhook, the winter of 1991 things suddenly changed drastically. The whispers started. News reports headlined with “Scandal in the Navy”. Chiefs and officers quit smiling. Long meetings of Khaki-shod leaders behind closed doors, frowns and scowls, and worried glances. Shrugs and defiant talk abounded.

Our chief came around and instructed us to remove all pinups and centerfolds from the shop immediately (on a ship with 3,500 men), then we got TQL (Total Quality Leadership) training and lectures on how NOT to be a sailor anymore. No more being drug back to the boat by our drunken sleeves, no more getting arrested in every country, no more tomfoolery and for god’s sake no more mention of breasts, EVER.

We got better at hiding our pinups INSIDE the equipment, which we slammed shut before answering the shop door. This worked well until the new guy screwed us by too quickly answering a knock which turned out to be a visiting female officer from a nearby ship.

This was followed by surprise inspections to make us take the centerfolds back down, and real butt-chewings. We then knew, it was no joke, heads were rolling. The navy had just been thrown out of the bar onto it’s face in the dirt. Welcome to the PC world.

While I agree there have been many advances in both the navy and the services in general, such as gays no longer having to worry about going to jail and getting a Big Chicken Dinner for serving their country, and women being allowed to die in combat equally, the pendulum swung far in the other direction. Everyone became more afraid of the accusations than being actually caught doing something wrong.  More than a few of the fairer-sex sailors used this to their advantage to get what they wanted. People were damned if you did, damned if you didn’t. An accusation could destroy a career, no matter how it was motivated, and we all knew it. Even the most mild-mannered and inherently PC among us were walking on eggshells.

And sadly, it seems to have never swung back. Slowly as commands changed, so did the culture.

By the time I left during the BRAC era, the Navy seemed a shell of its former boisterous self. And as I look back 20 years on I hardly recognize what I see. Much of it seems to have “improved” yet at a cost of much tradition. Not to say one is or was better than the other, just different.

Some folks disagree vehemently. One ex-Navy Secretary predicts naval failure soon, all because of a zero-tolerance over-reaction to the tailhook scandal. Things needed to change, yes and they did. But at what point will the ship right itself?

I myself have fond recollections of the old Navy, back before everyone was so afraid of screwing up. We were strong because we learned what centuries at sea and war had taught us. I can only hope that today’s military continues to learn their own strength.

  • The Professor

    I remember the breathless reporting back when Tailhook happened, and reading between the lines, it seemed to me to be a localized screw up of a group of officers and their club. I figured that the brass would stomp on them and make them clean up their act, and then life would go on. Not so, it seems. I really had no idea that it changed everything so much.
    Nice article.

  • John

    It's been many years since the Navy was confronted by a serious enemy on the High Seas. When that tiime comes, they wish that they still had those sob's they got rid of.

    • Truth.

      • Deartháir

        Fuck. So apparently locking old articles isn't working like it says it is. Back to the drawing board.

        • skitter

          Testing as non-moderator…

        • Welp, it was a half valid test. The comment itself got approved 3 minutes before I commented on it, but was sitting there for 172 weeks, so I'm not sure how those two variables play into the grand scheme.

  • theTokenGreek

    I'm currently a member of the Naval Aviation community, and it's pretty much just as you describe. The Officers' clubs and ready rooms (that still have kegs and taps in them) are empty… we're not about to take such a huge risk as to let down our guard in the open like that.

    There's a rather deeply nested link in the article that made the rounds in my circle a while back that's really worth a read:

    The guy has hit the nail on the head. How do we best learn lessons? Invariably, the hard way. But if we're not allowed to, then it devolves into taking absolutely everything on faith.

    • Hey, Sparky here, a salute to the token brown shoe. 🙂

      (I was the lone black sheep/shoe in our family)

      I just read the first couple paragraphs of that article, and I'm already hooked. I'll have to read it through in the AM once I've had some coffee. Good to see you here!

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

        It was a good article, I was too young to pay attention when this happened, more concerned about our family and money during that time. But I just did some googling and ran across this, the gauntlet:… So to me that brought back awful memories (really I feel terrible right now) of when I was bullied as a kid. The same sort of thing would happen to me (well not sexual just violent) like I would be walking from home to soccer practice, think it was okay to take a certain street cause only one bully was there, and then whoops guess not. I also blamed myself at the time. It's really terrible the price you all paid, but sometimes the strong medicine is needed sadly ad people don't miss what they had until it's gone for good. Sorry that there are people that took advantage of the new PC situation though, I would have hoped that others would have figured them out for what they were.

        • I read the gauntlet report as well in my research, and it is appalling, entirely unfair things happened to the victims. One thing that was sorely missing was the concept of self-policing, which I attribute to a large influx of new young "boot-camp" officers and a lack of leadership from their superiors. Someone HAS to stay in a leadership role, and the 1st & most valuable thing you learned from the older guys in your shop before liberty were the "ground rules" to keep everyone safe.

          I don't think that happened at Tailhook.

          So yes, people needed to have their pee-pees whacked and punished. However the judgement of several victims can be questioned as well. Unlike your saga of just trying to get home (I hate bullies), some of these folks (bartenders excluded) chose the excitement of going to the seediest floor at a wildest party in a seedy town. Not to give the party a pass, but there were no secrets. The gauntlet was legendary in a not so subtle way. AND it was lacking in any control.

          On the personal accountability factor, if I as an enlisted man go to the seedy red-light district in a foreign port where I have been warned people get in trouble, then I myself get in trouble I have no one else but myself to blame. I don't get a pass because I got robbed, I get in TROUBLE for putting myself in a bad situation.

          It has nothing to do with whether the red-light district is good or bad, should or shouldn't exist, and everything to do with my judgement for being there. The victims that were officers needed to be held to the same if not higher standards.

          The behavior of the rest of the officers involved was indeed a complete embarrassment to the Navy, and the fact that the media sensationalized it was very unfortunate.

          But the real tragedy was the resulting "absolute zero-tolerance of any mistake" culture that followed. These are hard working kids from all walks of life that are constantly learning, who endure some intense training under maddening conditions. They need to be able to let off steam on occasion and learn to become whole well-rounded adults in a controlled environment, with appropriate punishments for the inevitable transgressions that make us human.

          Instead they threw the baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to sterilize the culture, and lost much of what made the Navy special in the first place.

          • The Professor

            Zero tolerance programs almost never work, from what I've seen. It's a typical response you get from politicians in charge of a problem; it sounds good to the people reading the newspapers, but doesn't really fix the problem. It just covers it up and causes new problems.
            I'd give examples but I just got up and the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. I need a zombie professor avatar.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Yeah I did not think about the zero tolerance stuff, that sucks. When I was a kid I really lucked-out, I did stupid stuff like try to disassemble the school bus. It would have really been terrible if zero tolerance approach had been in place at that time for me. The thing is I was 16 at the time of the bus thing, so there is that aspect of a dumb kid needs to make mistakes to figure out what an embarrassing screw-up he is and change. Now 16 is pretty old in fact, yes I was stupid, but you might expect an 18+ year old to know better, and it seemed that the people that were involved were more in the 24-26 year old range, but if everyone else is doing it, well like you wrote no self-policing, and well they won't know better then in an environment like that.

            I work for a DOE lab and from what I have seen here, these sorts of decisions seem to be long in place before they go in place so to speak. There will be people that think things should be done a certain way, new policies, whatever. Then something happens and they go, "See! We told you exactly this would happen. If only you had done things like we said…" And then the new policy goes in place. So FWIW my guess would be that Tailhook itself was not the root cause but more of the climate at the time with the media explosion.

            Anyway I'm glad this place is so nice that we can have a completely friendly and adult conversation about this. It's a rare gem certainly. Again thanks for the article.

    • B72

      Dammit. I hate it when a link fails to direct you the the proper content because the host site is busy rerouting you to a generic mobile site you didn't ask for and don't want.

      \end rant

      I remember when Tailhook hit the news. All the news, all the time. Didn't realize it had such a huge impact on the Navy. Thanks for this.

    • The Professor

      That's a interesting article, but very dispiriting for a civilian like myself. Like most Americans, I take great pride in the men and women in our armed forces, and to hear how it has been methodically strangled of competent leadership is heartbreaking to read about. What will become of us?

      • People still go in, give it their all, walk a straight line and do us all proud. In fact I stand in awe that they accomplish this in spite of today's atmosphere.

        "I" sure couldn't do it. But they do. My hats off and deepest respects to them.

  • SSurfer321

    Great post. I am too young to remember Tailhook but I'll have to ask my Uncle about it. He retired out the Navy back in '96.

  • Pete– You may recall one of my nephews got out of the Navy a few months ago. He was never in any trouble but I nonetheless got the impression that the zero-tolerance, sudden-career-ending atmosphere doesn't do much to encourage retention (surprise!). Not good. One must not treat mistakes as crimes or crimes as mistakes, which is as close to a political comment as I hope to make here.

    • Bubblehead!!

      And that last comment is one of the most intelligent responses I think I have ever read.

  • SEP 21 1992.MEMORANDUM FOR ACTING SECRETARY OF THE NAVY.SUBJECT Report of Investigation Tailhook 91 -. Part 1 Review of the Navy Investigations.We have completed the first of two reports regarding Tailhook 91.The enclosed report Tailhook 91 – Part I Review of the Navy.Investigations addresses the action of senior Navy officials the.Naval Investigative Service NIS and the Naval Inspector General. Naval IG in conducting earlier probes into Tailhook 91.In part we concluded that the scope of the investigations should.have been expanded beyond the assaults to encompass other.violations of law and regulation as they became apparent and should.have addressed individual accountability for the leadership failure.that created an atmosphere in which the assaults and other.misconduct took place. In our.view the deficiencies in the investigations were the result of an.attempt to limit the exposure of the Navy and senior Navy criticism regarding Tailhook 91.For reasons apart from our finding I believe that changes may be.warranted in the naval investigative structure.

  • FuzzyPlushroom

    For what it's worth, one of my close childhood friends is in the Army (91B, stationed in Korea) and he seems to spend half his time fixing trucks and HMMWVs and otherwise acting respectable… and the other half getting hammered on soju. Last time he was home on leave, he was quite proud of having urinated in the backseat of a sergeant's car…

    • Sounds just like the Korea I fondly remember….

  • Testing, testing, hot-mike, hot-mike….