THE PENTAGON has now issued its report on the Tailhook Association's notorious 1991 annual meeting. The investigation seems to have been serious and thorough. Certainly this record of events at the Las Vegas meeting, its description of "an atmosphere of debauchery" there and subsequent attempts at coverup takes the incident seriously. Now it's time for equally serious follow-up action.
Some of the offenders at this convention apparently assaulted any female they found nearby, propelling guests and even fellow officers through a gantlet of drunks who groped them and ripped off their clothes. What's most shocking is that the perpetrators apparently considered this outrageous behavior boys-will-be-boys fun. They were wrong. Tailhook has become a watershed event that discredits the Navy.
It has already produced a sober day of reckoning in which high-ranking officers have been reassigned, careers ended and early retirements eagerly accepted. Last year U.S. Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned, taking responsibility for a "leadership failure" that allowed the scandal to occur.
Hopefully, the wild misconduct at this convention will also produce a historic divide between the old Navy and a newer one better suited to a military service in which increasing numbers of women belong and serve their nation.
The dimensions of abuse at this convention of 1,500 aviators and their friends and supporters emerge clearly from the inspector general's report. It found that 83 women and seven men were assaulted during the three nights, some victimized more than once. Their ages ranged from 18 to 48.
The report also implicated 117 officers for sexual misconduct or conduct unbecoming an officer and found that 51 officers lied during the investigations.
These individual allegations must be pursued, as President Clinton said in his press conference, with appropriate action. Properly, top Navy and Marine officers have already been assigned to determine how charges will the handled.
"We sincerely regret that this incident brought such discredit on our entire service," said Adm. Frank Kelso, chief of naval operations, in a welcome apology. "This behavior problem we had at Tailhook has got to be fixed. There's no doubt about that."
No, there isn't. Those responsible, especially for the assaults and the coverup, deserve stern punishment.
But the Navy also has to keep working on the archaic attitudes that led to Tailhook. The officers at fault saw themselves as swashbuckling, ride-the-waves daredevils, not as the drunken abusers they were. Some of their officers in the old-boy network winked at the whole business.
The Navy is working to change its attitude toward women and crimes against women, and the Tailhook investigation is part of its effort. The sooner it can turn the ship all the way around, the better.