During almost 38 years as a career Navy officer, Adm. Kelso served aboard nuclear submarines, commanded the Atlantic Fleet and directed the Navy’s military actions in the Persian Gulf War. In 1990, he was named chief of naval operations — the Navy’s top uniformed officer and its representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and supervised the largest reduction in naval forces since the end of World War II.
But much of Adm. Kelso’s career was overshadowed by the events of Sept. 5-7, 1991, when a convention of the Tailhook Association was held in Las Vegas. (The Tailhook Association is named after a device that helps brake airplanes landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier.) Adm. Kelso was one of about 4,000 people to attend the Las Vegas event for naval aviators.
Within months of the convention, word began to leak out of a raucous gathering in which male officers repeatedly groped and fondled women, many of whom were fellow military officers. According to reports, the men formed a gantlet and grasped at women running between them.
At a time when Adm. Kelso was working to expand opportunities for women in the military, the events of Tailhook exposed a Navy culture in which men, often fueled by alcohol, felt free to treat women as sexual objects without fear of reprisal.
Adm. Kelso ordered an investigation, but the scandal would not go away. He was dismayed, he said, when he learned that one female officer had sought help from a senior officer three times, only to be ignored.
He offered to resign in 1992 but was turned down by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and President George H.W. Bush.
After the initial investigation found only two central wrongdoers in the Tailhook matter, a more thorough report by an inspector general in 1993 cited 140 Navy and Marine Corps officers for sexual assault and other forms of misconduct.
Even his wife, Adm. Kelso said, asked him, “What is it about the Navy?”
The admiral came under sharp scrutiny and was criticized for not fully understanding the gravity of a scandal that had left, in the words of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), “a sordid, sleazy stain on the U.S. Navy.”
Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned under pressure in 1992. In October 1993, his successor, John H. Dalton, called for Adm. Kelso to step down as chief of naval operations. Defense Secretary Les Aspin rejected the advice, and the admiral stayed on.
In military legal proceedings, witnesses claimed to have seen Adm. Kelso near where some of the harassment occurred. A military judge also said the admiral had exerted undue influence on the Tailhook investigation.