Obituary: Retired Adm. Frank Kelso / Naval chief linked to Tailhook sex scandal in '91

July 11, 1933 - June 23, 2013


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By John H. Cushman Jr.

Retired Adm. Frank Kelso, who stepped aside under pressure as chief of naval operations in 1994 in the aftermath of rampant sexual misconduct by Navy officers at an aviation convention known as Tailhook, died Sunday in Norfolk, Va. He was 79.

The Navy said the cause was complications of injuries he suffered in a fall last week. He lived in Fayetteville, Tenn.

Rising from the ranks of submariners, Adm. Kelso held top naval commands in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in the 1980s. He oversaw capture of the terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro. He led airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's Libya in 1986. In 1990 and 1991, as chief of naval operations, he directed the U.S. naval effort in the Persian Gulf War from his seat among the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But his career was tarnished in 1991, when dozens of women, including officers, were sexually assaulted and harassed at the annual meeting in Las Vegas of a booster group called the Tailhook Association.

Three investigations eventually implicated 140 Navy and Marine Corps pilots in assaults on 83 women in what the Pentagon's office of inspector general described as "an atmosphere of debauchery." Dozens of officers were fined or disciplined out of court, and many of their careers were derailed, but nobody was court-martialed.

The scandal, which exposed a culture of misogyny that permeated the ranks and was tolerated or ignored by commanders, came at a time when women seeking equality in the military faced ingrained resistance.

Decades later, despite the widening roles for women in combat and throughout the services, the military continues to struggle with persistent reports of violence, rape and mistreatment of women in the ranks.

In the years after Tailhook -- the term refers to a grappling device that arrests planes landing on the short decks of aircraft carriers -- Mr. Kelso himself supported the opening of new roles for women in the Navy, including as combat pilots. He once said that a turning point for him had come when he interviewed candidates for a select assignment as master chief petty officer of the Navy. He asked them, as voices of the seafaring rank and file, whether the rules concerning women should change. "Why don't we get on with it?" he said they replied.

But as the Tailhook investigations rattled the service, he came under sustained pressure. He offered to resign in 1992, but was turned down. The Navy secretary, H. Lawrence Garrett III, did resign that year; his successor, John Dalton, pressed for Adm. Kelso's removal in 1993 but was rebuffed by defense Secretary Les Aspin, who had been appointed by the new president, Bill Clinton.

Finally, a Navy judge, Capt. William T. Vest Jr., found that Adm. Kelso had lied when he said he had not observed any improper behavior by pilots at the Tailhook convention, which he had attended. Capt. Vest said Adm. Kelso had tried to manipulate the investigations.

Adm. Kelso and top officials disputed the evidence and denounced Capt. Vest's conclusions. But a few days later Adm. Kelso agreed to step aside, just two months earlier than planned, in exchange for a tribute from Defense Secretary William Perry, who had succeeded Mr. Aspin. Mr. Perry called Adm. Kelso a man of "highest integrity and honor."

Women in Congress, and others, objected. Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that "the military's bad-faith handling of the Tailhook scandal shows that we are a government of admirals, not of laws."

Congressional critics demanded that Adm. Kelso be denied his full pension. But after hours of debate, the Senate finally voted to let him retire with his four-star rank and benefits intact.

Years later, he worried about the lasting damage not only to his own reputation but also to the Navy's.

"It's kind of like, a father gives you a good name," he told the public television program "Frontline." "You can stain it once and it stays with you for a long, long time. The good name is hard to restore. That's kind of how I see it. And if you want to keep giving the Navy that stain, I think it's really unfair."

Frank Benton Kelso II was born in Fayetteville on July 11, 1933. He joined the submarine force after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956. He commanded two nuclear submarines.

After his promotion to rear admiral, he worked in the office of President Ronald Reagan's first Navy secretary, John Lehman Jr. The administration had ambitions to build a bigger fleet, but the proposed expansion was cut short; by the time Adm. Kelso became chief of naval operations in 1990, the Cold War was over, the peace dividend -- a shrinking Pentagon budget -- was coming due, and the Navy had to strain to dispatch its flotillas to far seas like the Persian Gulf.

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