A new report reveals which U.S. military bases put servicemembers at highest risk for sexual assault from within. It’s been decades since the infamous “Tailhook” scandal in which the first whistleblower took public her story of military sexual misconduct. Joce Sterman reports.
Paula Coughlin: My first priority and I think most victims are - is Oh my God. This can’t happen to another person.
Paula Coughlin was one of the first to ring the bell of the Me Too movement, long before it was called that. In 1991, she attended the Tailhook symposium at the Las Vegas Hilton, a large-scale gathering for Naval Aviators. It became a partying mob, targeting women who walked a stretch of the 3rd floor hallway known as the Gauntlet.
Paula Coughlin: What happened to me was criminal and it had to be stopped.
This Lieutenant and Helicopter pilot, became one of the first to fight back.
Paula: There was an organized sport going on. People grabbed my arms and legs and clothing, knocking me to the floor and trying to take my clothes off. I really have to say I fought like a wildcat to get out of there.
The next morning, she told her boss, an admiral, what happened.
Paula Coughlin: He said, that’s what you get, that’s what you get for going down a hallway full of drunk aviators
An investigation found 83 women and 7 men were assaulted at the conference. 117 navy officers were implicated of wrongdoing.
Reporter, 1993: Could this happen again in today’s Navy?
Navy official: Something like Tailhook’s not gonna happen again.
Joce: Do you think there’s in this culture, in this day and age, the scenario where Tailhook could happen again?
Paula Coughlin: Yes.
According to the latest numbers from the Pentagon, reports of sexual assault in the military jumped nearly 10 percent in 2017. More than 52 hundred service members reported being assaulted during their time in the military. That, despite a litany of promises to put a stop to it.
Col. Christensen: They’ve used a lot of bumper sticker kind of responses -- zero tolerance -- things like that that haven’t really moved the ball forward in solving the issues.
Retired Air Force Colonel Don Christensen is President of Protect our Defenders -a group focused on combating sexual violence in the miltary. He says the problem is highlighted in a new report from the independent Rand corporation. Released in September, it used complex math to evaluate risk, base by base, branch by branch.
Col. Christensen: Navy and the Marines are much higher sexual assault rates and what the Air Force has. There are 8 installations in the DOD where there are over 500 sexual assaults every year. Fort Hood had almost 900 sexual assaults per year. If you have a better chance of being raped than you had to be injured in combat, we know that number’s too high.
The report- ordered by the Pentagon, studied trends based on a large scale survey done in 2014. It found the highest risks were often on ships, the worst single report at the Naval Support Activity Base Charleston, where 17 percent of women were sexually assaulted in 2014.
Paula Coughlin: The military to this day, I believe, that they are still more concerned with not getting caught rather than not having it in their command.
The report suggests the way to approach the problem is look at the worst first. One recommendation, if the Marine Corps worked to reduce sexual assaults of women at its top 10 worst installations, it could significantly reduce the risk across the entire Corps. The question is how. Rand's report had some familiar recommendations: more training, more awareness, and more studies.
Joce: Do you think these recommendations are enough and what do you think about them?
Col. Christensen: Well, I think it’s a good start now. What's not there is talking about accountability. Seeing a admiral or general held off in handcuffs for committing these kinds of offenses would send a strong message. And there've been many admirals and generals who fit that bill to be let off in handcuffs.
Joce: And they skated?
Col. Christensen: They've skated.
Joce: The Pentagon spokesperson calls the RAND study a valuable first look, saying quote it “adds to the dod’s growing knowledge base, and it reflects the department’s commitment to employing the full spectrum of proven solutions to combat sexual assault, sexual harassment and other behaviors in conflict with good order and discipline.”
Paula Coughlin: It's got all the right words, even in the right order. They are glad that they have a piece of paper that they can hold up and say, look, we're counting heads now, but it doesn't really indicate that they are committed to solving the problem.
The report found that places with high sexual harassment rates also had high sexual assault rates. But - as we've previously reported - the military branches define sexual harassment differently. The Pentagon has promised it will have a clear standard in place by next year.