A board of admirals has recommended that the Navy lift its ban on official contact with the Tailhook Association, eight years after drunken escapades and sexual misconduct at the association's convention in Las Vegas that shook the Navy and prompted changes in the service's treatment of women.
The recommendation, which is under review by Navy leaders, is dependent on assurances from the 43-year-old association that future conventions will remain decorous and focus on informational seminars rather than on socializing, Navy sources said.
"It's going to have to be a professional convention, not an excuse for a party," said one senior officer familiar with the review.
Both Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and Adm. Jay Johnson, the Navy's top military officer, appear to be inclined to reopen ties with the association, which serves as a booster club for sea-based aviation and a social network for naval aviators.
In a speech to naval aviators in March, Danzig declared his displeasure with the frozen state of relations. Noting that people can learn from mistakes, Danzig said keeping the association off-limits inhibited cohesion in the Navy.
"The same sense of camaraderie that I've talked about makes it important for us to talk with one another and not to treat any portions of the community as though they were pariahs," he told the Association of Naval Aviators.
Renewal of recognition for the Tailhook Association also has strong backing from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a former Navy secretary. In a letter to Danzig three months ago, he said "important changes" had occurred in the association since 1991 and concluded that "it is now an appropriate time" for the Navy to restore support to the group. Doing so, he said, would boost morale and encourage pilots to stay in the Navy and Marine Corps.
At the same time, Warner said the association would have to sign an agreement to "adhere to all Navy policies on standards of conduct."
The 1991 convention triggered a political furor and 2 1/2 years of investigations into reports that Navy and civilian women had been assaulted by a "gantlet" of jeering junior aviators. Scores of careers were ruined or cut short by the scandal, which forced the resignation of then-Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III and the early retirement of Adm. Frank Kelso Jr., then chief of naval operations. No one was court-martialed, but the Navy meted out administrative penalties to 30 admirals and 28 other officers, short-circuiting their chances for promotion. The Marine Corps reprimanded 21 officers.
In the view of many Navy women, the most important legacy of Tailhook was its effect on attitudes and policies toward women in uniform. The resulting uproar helped open many more Navy combat jobs for women. Surveys indicate that mandatory sensitivity training, which began in response to the scandal, has heightened awareness of sexual harassment issues throughout the Navy.
Tailhook Association officials say their group has changed its ways. Its annual convention, now held outside Reno instead of in Las Vegas, is shorter and less raucous, with wives of members encouraged to attend.
"We still think it's important for guys to have a good time, but some of the things are toned down," said Lonny McClung, a retired Navy captain who serves as the association's president.
The organization--named for the hook on a plane that snags the cable on an aircraft carrier during a landing--has about 10,000 members, down from a 1991 peak of 16,000. While some active-duty personnel have trickled back to recent gatherings, they attend on their own time and not in uniform. The Navy has refused even to send officers to lead seminars.
With the next convention scheduled for Aug. 19-22 in Sparks, Nev., Navy officials said a decision on resuming ties could be made soon. But details on the extent of Navy involvement remain unresolved.
"I would expect the involvement to be minimal initially to ensure the association follows through on its commitment to remain professional," one senior officer said.
CAPTION: Sen. John W. Warner says naval aviator group has undergone "important changes."