Representative Pat Schroeder (D.-Colorado) Representative Pat Schroeder (D.-Colorado)

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 In the midst of the Tailhook controversy, she wrote a provision into a defense bill which repealed the ban on women in combat aviation.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 women?

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 things.

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 smart.

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 Boorda.

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."


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