WASHINGTON — THE macho "Top Gun" image of Navy aviators has been badly tarnished in recent days by detailed reports of sexual harassment and a subsequent cover-up at a 1991 Navy and Marine Corps convention.
As the result of an internal investigation, disclosed last week, it was charged that at least 26 women, 13 of them naval officers, were sexually harassed when forced past a "gantlet" of inebriated aviators at the convention site, the Las Vegas (Nev.) Hilton.
In a meeting with defense reporters on Monday, the Navy's top aviation commander said he assumed full responsibility for what he termed the "appalling" events laid out in the Naval Investigative Service study. "I should be fired. It could happen," said Vice Adm. Richard M. Dunleavy.
Admiral Dunleavy did not deny a reporter's assertion that the events showed a failure of Navy leadership to adequately convey to its aviators that such behavior is not acceptable.
At the very least, the thousands of pages of investigative documents about the incident showed a naval "ambivalence toward alcohol," according to Dunleavy, as well as the fact that some at the convention were "abusive to women."
Since the harassment case first surfaced five months ago, the Navy as an institution has been "looking inward to see what is going on, what's lacking," said the naval aviation chief. One result has been that aviators will receive education in "core values, integrity, honesty ... respect for human beings" when they first enter the Navy, with required refresher courses throughout their careers.
The events in question took place early last September at a convention held by the Tailhook Association that was attended by at least 1,500 Navy and Marine Corps fliers. Tailhook is a private group that works closely with the Navy in professional development. Aviators can receive free military transportation and time off for Tailhook events. Conventions feature seminars on safety and other subjects, but in recent years they have also become known for excessive drinking and other out-of-control behavior, according to investigation documents.
Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III broke off the Navy's relationship with the Tailhook Association last fall, after reports that a female aide to an admiral had been molested at the convention. The aide's boss, Rear Adm. John W. Snyder Jr., was demoted from his job as chief of a Navy air test center in Maryland after officials decided he didn't respond fast enough to the woman's complaints.
The just-released Naval Investigative Service and Inspector General documents about the incident describe a convention that makes a mockery of the fast-living but forthright aviator's image portrayed in the movie "Top Gun." Hospitality suites at the Las Vegas Hilton featured strippers, the showing of X-rated films, and free-flowing drinks.
The third-floor "gantlet," apparently an informal Tailhook tradition that dates back several years, was the site of the most serious incidents. Women forced through the gantlet were fondled by male aviators as they struggled to free themselves, according to the Navy report. Some participants in the gantlet attempted to remove women's clothes.
Perhaps the most disturbing charge in the Navy report is that many of the aviators who were present are suffering convenient lapses of memory and otherwise not cooperating with investigators. "Closing ranks and obfuscation were the predominant responses," according to the report.
Investigators found that many of the aviators interviewed just didn't understand that outside their closed world the charges being discussed are often viewed very seriously. A common reaction was "What's the big deal?" according to the Navy.
Admiral Dunleavy attended the Tailhook Convention but says he was nowhere near the area where the abuses described by the Navy took place. He declined to discuss specific personalities involved, saying it could prejudice the investigative process.
"What we all saw in the report is appalling," he said. "The perception that the naval aviation leadership condones this is not true."