Above, Paula Coughlin joined other military sexual assault survivors on Capitol Hill in August 2012 to demand a congressional hearing and investigation into the sexual assault scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)
Paula Coughlin joined other military sexual assault survivors on Capitol Hill in August 2012 to demand a congressional hearing and investigation into the sexual assault scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. After she took her story public in June 1992, Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned. They shared the cover of Navy Times on July 6, 1992. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
A jury awarded Paula Coughlin $5 million in 1994 after finding the Las Vegas Hilton failed to provide adequate security during the 1991 Tailhook convention. She received $400,000 in a settlement with the Tailhook Association.
In the fall of 1991, hundreds of naval aviators mobbed the Las Vegas Hilton for the annual Tailhook convention, a gathering of the Navy’s entire aviation community.
Stepping out on the hotel’s third floor hallway en route to squadron hospitality suites there, Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin was violently assaulted, groped by fellow officers who tried to pull off her clothes as she was forced through a gantlet of pilots and navigators. When she complained to her boss the next morning, Rear Adm. John Snyder was dismissive: “What did you expect?”
Her complaints ignored, the young helicopter pilot eventually took her story public, unleashing a firestorm that changed the military forever: Top brass lost their jobs, sexual harassment training became mandatory for all, and women were cleared to fly combat jets.
But Coughlin was branded. She got out of the Navy in 1995, she recalled, but “I still get hate mail.”
At 51, she runs a yoga studio in Florida and serves on the advisory board of Protect Our Defenders, advocating for military sexual assault victims.
“I used to think being at Tailhook was the biggest mistake of my life,” she said. “But you know what? It’s a wound that has given me so much more understanding and compassion. It’s made me a better person.”
Q. What has changed since Tailhook?
A. When I came forward, I was constantly attacked in the media and in any venue you could think of. Anything I’d ever done in my life was used to impeach me and make me look like a lying slut. The American public and the media now understand rape is a real problem in the military. There is a tremendous level of understanding when a person comes forward as a victim.
Q. Are you surprised sexual assault is still a problem in the military?
A. No, I’m not. At the time, I didn’t understand sexual assault was embedded in the military culture. Now I understand. I also firmly believe military leadership after Tailhook missed the opportunity to prosecute and convict those responsible. The military still has an antiquated view of sex assault. At the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Lackland [Air Force Base] investigation in January, none of the generals who testified in the first panel stayed to listen to victims’ testimonies. It was a perfect snapshot of what they really think of this problem.
Q. What do you think about recent efforts to curb sexual assault in the military, such as workplace sweeps for offensive materials?
A. Those kinds of efforts are a facade. You’re not going to see change until you really start putting people in jail for committing these crimes. I’m not talking about putting someone in jail for having a nudity calendar in their workspace. But somebody said that was OK and somebody else is going to take it one step further. The sexual assault prevention and response office is just one of those collateral programs that is mocked. In the Navy, we called it “gun decking” — put a check in the block. That’s all it is.
Q. If you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a day, what would you do?
A. I would authorize a program outlining a special sexual assault and rape victims unit with prosecutors, defense attorneys and victim support. I would have civilian oversight so there wouldn’t be a constant military turnover. I would model it after our NATO allies who have had those procedures in place, and I would codify a change to the UCMJ making it a felony offense if a commanding officer or someone within the chain of command does not immediately forward any complaint of sexual misconduct, sexual assault or rape.
Q. Would you want your daughter to join the military?
A. I would want her to want to join the military because it is something that has been part of our family history for generations. My dad was career military and both my grandfathers served in World War II. But I wouldn’t ever really hope that she does it. We’re generations away from really fixing this problem.