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.