They Still Don't Get It

SOME scandals, or alleged scandals, never seem to go away. Others disappear from memory all too fast.

The Tailhook scandal, with the gantlet of drunken Navy and Marine fliers harassing scores of women in a Las Vegas hotel corridor, should be unforgettable. But it might as well never have happened as far as many of the 140 officers implicated are concerned. Although the scandal cost one Navy secretary his job and has cast a cloud over Adm. Frank Kelso II, the current chief of naval operations, not one of the servicemen involved was convicted by a court-martial.

It is the women involved who can't forget. Last month the chief Tailhook whistle-blower, Lt. Paula Coughlin, chose early retirement rather than endure the whispering campaign of innuendo that has further harassed her in the more than two years since.

Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week indicated that the pattern of punishing the victim persists. When Lt. Darlene Simmons, a lawyer in the Navy Reserves, complained that her superior had harassed her, she was ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination. Air Force Sgt. Zenaida Martinez testified that an investigation was initiated against her after she filed her complaint. Even though Sergeant Martinez supplied tapes documenting her harassment, her case remains under review 18 months later.

The military, in its defense, points to new sensitivity-training programs, but a Pentagon official conceded that those responsible for reform have evidently ``not done a very good job.''

The lesson of Tailhook was obvious. But the lesson of post-Tailhook seems to be that the lesson of Tailhook did not take hold.

As long as the conclusion of the offenders is not, ``I was wrong,'' but ``don't get caught,'' no amount of regulations and sensitivity training will make a real difference.

Given the boys-will-be-boys culture of the military, it would have been a surprise if Tailhook - or any other event - could lead to a sudden and complete turnaround. But the unrepentant do not always wear a uniform, and Tailhook (and after) is merely an extreme case in point. The final lesson from Tailhook (and after) is that attitudes everywhere change more slowly than high-visibility investigations and front-page headlines promise.

Real improvement may come too late for Ms. Coughlin or the post-Tailhook victims testifying last week. But their courage in coming forward will make justice more certain for future generations of women in the military, and elsewhere.

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