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October 24, 2014

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Military’s record on sexual assault has gone from bad to worse

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Another day, another military sexual assault scandal.

On Tuesday, a week after the Air Force announced its chief of sexual assault prevention had been arrested in Arlington, Va., for drunkenly assaulting a woman in a parking lot, the Army announced that a sergeant first class who works in the sexual assault prevention office at Fort Hood was under investigation for sexual assault and pandering.

Pandering — as in “pimping.” CNN reported that the sergeant is being investigated for forcing a subordinate into prostitution, as well as sexually assaulting two others.

After writing last week about the Pentagon’s report on the dramatic increase in reports of sexual assault in the past two years, I went back and looked at some of the coverage of one of the most notorious sexual assault scandals in U.S. military history, which took place in 1991 at the annual gathering of the Tailhook Association, a group of active and retired Navy fliers.

I was trying to figure out how much, if anything, has changed since a Navy helicopter pilot named Paula Coughlin stepped into the spotlight in 1992, saying she had been brutalized by fellow aviators in a corridor of the Las Vegas Hilton.

“I got attacked by a bunch of men that tried to pull my clothes off,” she testified in 1994 when she sued the Hilton. “I fell down to the floor and tried to get out of the hallway, and they wouldn’t let me out. They were trying to pull my underwear off from between my legs.”

She pleaded with an aviator walking in front of her. Instead of helping, she testified, he grabbed her breasts with both hands and smiled.

The next morning at breakfast, she said, when she told her boss, Rear Adm. Jack Snyder, about the assault, he said, “Well, that’s what you get for going down a hallway of a bunch of drunken aviators.”

The Navy investigated, then investigated its investigation.

Assistant Navy Secretary Barbara Pope refused to accept the results of the first inquiry, which was described as “half-hearted,” after the officer in charge, Rear Adm. Duvall Williams Jr., said in her presence that “a lot of Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers.”

Noting the salty language used by one woman to describe being assaulted, he also said, “Any woman that would use the F word on a regular basis would welcome this type of activity.”

Ultimately, investigators found, at least 83 women and seven men were assaulted. Many careers were derailed by the scandal, including 14 admirals and nearly 300 aviators, the PBS show “Frontline” reported. Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett ultimately resigned. Williams took an early retirement.

The Pentagon sternly vowed it had “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and assault.

Tailhook represented the sort of lawless, alcohol-fueled behavior that was never supposed to happen again in an age where increasing numbers of women were joining the military.

Things have changed since Tailhook, that’s for sure. Military sexual assaults no longer occur in raucous hotel corridors. Instead, they’re taking place in more private settings, and in record numbers.

Good work, Pentagon.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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