THE United States Navy - particularly its air arm - has suffered a fiasco over the past three and a half years. Not a military defeat, but a breakdown of discipline and public relations that will take perhaps another three years to overcome.
Most Americans who follow the news are aware by now that a ``tailhook'' is a device that catches airplanes as they land on the the decks of aircraft carriers, protecting the planes from landing in the sea.
The 35th annual convention of the Tailhook Association, a naval aviators' group, in 1991, figuratively fell off the carrier deck.
Following up complaints by women at the convention - including female members of the Navy - the Pentagon's inspector general found that some 83 women were assaulted or molested at the Tailhook convention in the Las Vegas, Nev., Hilton Hotel.
The Navy inspector general cited 140 cases of potential sexual molestation; some 50 offenders received administrative discipline.
Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett resigned. His replacement, John Dalton, called for the dismissal of the highly respected chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank Kelso II. The admiral was accused of seeing some of the misconduct in Las Vegas but doing nothing about it. Admiral Kelso, near retirement after an outstanding Navy career, strongly denied this, as did others. He received a ``letter of caution,'' but apparently will finish his tenure as chief of naval operations.
In an ironic, undeserved outcome Lt. Paula Coughlin, who first called attention to the situation at the Tailhook gathering, said she would resign from the Navy July 1. She cited ``covert and overt attacks on me that ... have stripped me of my ability to serve''; she added that she does not regret reporting the assault.
Can what happened in Nevada now be put aside until other, similar situations occur? Harassment of female cadets at the service academies has occurred in the past.
Women in the military must not be discriminated against, humiliated, or provided less opportunity than men. They have demonstrated their ability and their right to serve.