Schroeder is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a central
player in issues surrounding the military's treatment of women. In the midst of
the Tailhook controversy, she wrote a provision into a defense bill which
repealed the ban on women in combat aviation. Schroeder also led a march of
Congresswomen to the Senate to protest Admiral Kelso's forced early retirement
at full rank (Kelso had been present at Tailhook '91). The women
unsuccessfully fought to have Kelso stripped of two of his four stars. After
24 years in Congress she is retiring when her current term ends in January.
Q: Tell me about when you first heard of Tailhook.
SCHROEDER: I can't really tell you an exact date. But Tailhook had a long,
established presence among aviators. It went on every year. There was like a
Tailhook Society. And I guess I was first aware of it when it got so rowdy, it
got thrown out of Mexico. There was a place down in Mexico where they were
going and they were told not to go. And then there were several different
times where it just spilled over in such rowdiness that it would make a one- or
two-day headline. And then something else would come along and--psht!--it was
gone, and everybody was not focusing on it again. And then all of a
sudden, as we all know, it blew like a volcano. The Cold War was over. They
couldn't brush it under the rug. It was a new day. People wouldn't accept it.
And that's where we were.
Q: How bad was Tailhook '91?
SCHROEDER: Obviously I wasn't there. I don't know how I can say. The Inspector
General put out a very detailed report. And I think it certainly didn't come
across as what a typical convention would be in most professions in America. I
don't think you'd see the Inspector General putting out that kind of report on,
say, the Bar Association or on the Medical Association, or on any other
professional association. And that's basically what Tailhook was all about.
Q: Was that the Navy's response?
SCHROEDER: Yes, I think it basically was. I mean, it certainly seemed to be--the
admiral that Paula tried to get involved in it. Most of the higher ups were
kind of yawning, and not wanting to pay much attention to it. I guess
"distracting" is more the way you say. For someone during the Cold War, you
can always say, "Well, let me tell you what a real problem-- Here's a real
problem. We got to focus on this problem." And I think what had happened is,
you kind of got this critical mass of women, internally in the military, that
was a much higher number, and you really saw, with the Cold War going away, it
was much more difficult to distract on some "real problem" in a peacetime Navy.
You also had the whole culture having changed, with women having moved much
more into professions all across the whole spectrum. And people could listen
to these stories and think, "Now, if I went on vacation as a newsman from my
network," (and this happened) "what would transpire?" People were able to put
that together. So all of those things kind of came together, all at once.
Q: We've talked to some of these women, and they said, "Do you have any
idea what a big step it was for us to complain about this?" What about that--
how courageous was Paula Coughlin or Roxanne Baxter or some of these other
SCHROEDER: They were all very brave to come forward. I know I've talked to
pediatricians who said that the interesting thing about Tailhook was, it was
the fathers and the grandfathers who pushed the women out there and said,
"That's right," you know. "You fight." And if you talk to most of the women
who came forward, they did have fathers who were in the Navy, or grandfathers
who were in the Navy, or males in their family, who said, "This is not the
officer and the gentleman. This has gone way too far."
And in all honesty, Tailhook was more an isolated type of occurrence among the
aviators. You didn't see this going on in other services, so much. But there
had been a long tradition of aviators could do almost anything they wanted.
They were like the creme de la creme. They were so special. And no matter
what they did, it was winked at.
So to suddenly have these brazen young women come forward and think they could
question the stars, it's kind of like what's gone on in colleges sometimes,
when women question a football star on the issue of rape or something. Oh boy,
is that brave. I mean, that is really brave. You are taking on the mega-stars
of the service.
But I really think the pediatricians were probably right. It was the fathers
and the grandfathers who said, "I'm proud of that young woman in my family
carrying on this tradition. And I'm not proud of that Tailhook tradition. And
she's going to be part of the team, like I was."
Q: Can you talk about what happened with Admiral Kelso.
SCHROEDER: Well, (laughs) I have always been amazed at some of retired
military and how they think, "I run the entire military of the United States.
Then I am more powerful than the Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary of Defense,
anything else......I was running the Navy. I'm running everything." And we
had some words with Admiral Kelso about, "Get a clue. These women are part of
your team, and you don't seem to be standing up for them at all. We'd like to
have a little more focus on this problem," as we were trying to get the Senate
to have a little more focus on some of their problems and other such
The amazing thing to me was how some of the troops then started reacting. If
you really look at Tailhook, I was not trying to be high profile at all. You
can go look at the newspaper articles. We really weren't. We were making
inquiries. We were talking. We were trying to be supportive. But we were not
running out and calling a press conference every day. And then the thing that
really gave it a lot of legs was, somehow, some of the men implicated in
Tailhook decided to make me the focus, and started putting on these
little plays and doing all sorts of outrageous things. That got a response,
and then I got to respond to their outrageous response. This thing went on and
on and round and round and round. It was not really politically smart, or PR
Q: Did you care about becoming a focus?
SCHROEDER: (laughs) I could care less. Listen. You go to the House floor and I'm
called names 24 hours a day. But the thing that tickled me so much was their
thinking that I was the reason that Tailhook could no longer be allowed,
as the kind of outrage it was. I mean, their view was, Tailhook has now got to
be catered by Mrs. Smith and her cookies and we're going to have it-- What were
they saying? We're going to have it in Salt Lake City, and can only have milk,
and all this. They're thinking that I was the only one, and that everybody in
the House and Senate and the Administration was running because of me.
No. They just couldn't deal with the fact that society had changed so much.
Q: Do you think Admiral Kelso did everything he could?
SCHROEDER: Well, I think, with the tragedy of Admiral Boorda's suicide we
begin to see another picture. One of the problems in the Navy is that
tradition of being captain of the ship. And an awful lot of people can be
retired in the Navy, get over it, get a life, and go on. But there's a lot who
can't. And when they have to give up the ship, they got to be captain of
something, every single day. And you've got retired Naval officers who just
never stop shouting at the admiral in charge or the CNO, the civilians in
charge. They're always harping. They're always screaming. They still want
battleships. These guys don't quit. They really do everything they can to
make people's lives miserable. And I think it's awfully hard, because
whoever's in charge gets in this crossfire. You've got your allegiance to the
active duty and what you're doing. And then you're constantly hearing these
other guys, who don't have anything to do, because they get their retirement
check, but yap and yap and yap and yap and yap, like you know, yapping dogs, 24
hours a day. And that's what they were doing, some of them, to Admiral
So as they're yapping away all the time, I think he thought he was being a
bridge. What he didn't understand is, these admirals that were retired were so
far out of synch with the rest of the world, it wasn't a bridge at all. Where
he needed to be was much more focused on what was going on in the active duty
military, and figuring out how we get this to bridge into the twenty-first
century, not back to the nineteenth.
Q: Think the right thing is happening now?
SCHROEDER: I'm very troubled about what's happening now. Young women in the
Navy are being yelled at all the time by some of these guys. Not all of them.
But there's a few who just don't quit. And they constantly yell at the young
women about Tailhook. Now, most of these women have never been to that. I
mean, they're young. They're new. They're coming in. They're going through
training. Ararara! And I think that's very sad.
And that comes from an awful lot of people who have the perception their
promotions have been held up because of Tailhook. Now, whether that perception
is correct or not, I don't really know. You're seeing promotions being held up
all across the services because they're downsizing, like everything else. And
they don't need as many officers as they used to need. But when everybody
doesn't get a promotion, when anybody doesn't get a promotion in the Navy, it's
kind of, "Oh, it had to be because of Tailhook, and it's those terrible women."
And you continue making the women pay--or at least some folks do this--for
something they really had nothing to do with, except they're females.
So I really am hoping that the Navy leadership can find some way to stop this,
because again, it has to be a team. We're going through the Olympics. We're
watching women working as teams. We're watching men working as teams. We're
watching all working as teams. We're proud of men and women getting medals.
That's how the Navy should be working. And you cannot have part of the Navy
pointing at every single woman in there, saying, "It's because of you
that all these rules have changed."