This is a blog about leadership principles I learned many years ago when I was an admiral’s aide or Loop. I have posted a lot on this subject and am nearing the end of this series of “What I learned from the Admiral.”
There is so much more to come from what I have learned from other leaders over the years, but I have about four to five more subjects I will cover with Navy sea stories as I head into the finishing laps of the Admiral's lessons.
For now, this is the second part of my discussion on the importance of loyalty. Compared to the civilian workplace, corporations, and law firms, the Navy is a pretty rewarding, yet unforgiving profession. With responsibility and authority as a senior officer comes accountability. If a ship runs aground, even if the Captain is not on the deck with the con (driving the ship), they are ultimately held accountable for that incident. It is common upon such an occurrence that the Commanding Officer is relieved of Command even before a formal investigation has started. Officers are also expected to act with integrity and obey the law.
Loyalty as a Loop
I learned about accountability and loyalty as a Loop. Being loyal to the admiral meant that I was his second conscious, steering him away from any potential trouble on the horizon. No one else could tell him “No” as easy I could. If it didn’t look right, sound right, smell right, or was just outright not right, I told the Admiral: “Not a good idea, sir.”
While flag officers are smart, the stars can go to their heads, and the fanfare can become intoxicating. Every year, some flag officers make the front pages of The Navy Times, ending an otherwise fabulous career because of a dumb mistake or intentional misstep. Immediately relieved due to their bosses’ “loss of confidence in their ability to command.” Change of Command without a band, as we would call it. Retiring in disgrace. Embarrassing their family. Shocking their colleagues. Writing the last line in their military biography that forever overshadows years of honorable service and personal sacrifice.
Hurry up and wait - with other loops
As an admiral’s aide, I spent countless hours with other loops in hallways and holding rooms, “milling about smartly,” waiting for our bosses who were in important meetings or attending major conferences. During those times, after we had confirmed every detail of the next evolution on the schedule, we would chat about our experiences, laugh at our circumstances, and swap great sea stories about our successes and humorous failures.
We would also hear scuttlebutt about the latest loop to be fired or admiral to be relieved of command. We would share stories about “not so smart” things the admiral might want to do. I got to know a lot of other aides during those times. As I have discussed, we had a strong network, as we could feel each other’s pain.
At one flag conference, I saw Lieutenant Liback, a flight school buddy of mine, who went on to be a backseat Naval Flight Officer in F-14 Tomcats. He was like Goose in the original Top Gun movie and good ole Bob in the new Top Gun Maverick film. As NFOs, we were not considered as cool as the pilots, but we were still Naval Aviators and wore double-anchored Wings of Gold. This guy was a tall and lanky Citadel graduate, and I had not seen him for over three years.
Getting an F-14 slot back in 1986 at the height of the original Top Gun was “Sierra Hotel.” He was a loop for an Intelligence Community Admiral when I saw him. That was odd because aides were usually chosen from the same “warfare community” or branch of the Navy as the admiral. Aviators would serve aviator admirals. Surface Warfare “black shoe” ship guys would serve Surface Warfare shoe Admirals. “Bubblehead” submarine officers would serve submarine admirals.
After getting caught up with him, I asked: “How did you get selected to work for an Intel Admiral as an aviator.”
He stated, “Well, after I survived my third ejection from the F-14, all three into the water, my back was a little messed up, and I thought it was time to switch communities!” Liback went on to state that in all three ejections from the F-14, he was in the back seat behind a much junior pilot.
Lieutenant Paula Coughlin was a fellow admiral’s aide whom I met on one of many of my loop trips. Paula was a helicopter pilot and a very sharp officer. She was the loop for Admiral Jack Snyder, who was the past president of the Tailhook Association, and, at that time, he was the admiral for the Naval Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland. During those days, it was uncommon for a female to be an aide as they still were not allowed to fly combat aircraft or be on combatant ships or submarines. So, I knew Paula had passed an intense screening process as a female aviator to be a loop.
Tailhook 1991 invitation
In the middle of 1991, Admiral Simpson was considering invitations to several conflicting events to attend that fall. I would assist him in scheduling and juggling multiple conflicting invitations. I worked closely with the flag writer on managing future engagements. We would often hold off on making a final decision and commitment until the deadline, partly due to indecisiveness and also recognizing that events get canceled and circumstances change that can make the decision for you. Happens all the time, even in the corporate world today. This is another lesson I learned working in the front office. Sometimes there is value in procrastination.
One of these events in the fall of 1991 was the Naval Aviation Annual Tailhook Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. Billed as an aviation symposium, it was usually a three-day party for all aircraft carrier-based “jet jock” aviators. Named “Tailhook” in recognition of the tailhook that the aircraft carrier aircraft had that was used to catch a wire on the deck on the aircraft carrier and stop a 54,000 aircraft traveling more than 150 mph in less than two seconds.
Tailhook was a big deal. Known for a number of days of meetings and briefings from the top of the Naval Aviation Chain of Command, events the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Navy would attend to give presentations. But it had become a hard-core partying event—drinking, Vegas, and, quite honestly, much debauchery.
On one of our regular upcoming calendar reviews with the admiral’s flag secretary, Admiral Simpson quipped, ”I got an invitation to go to Tailhook again this year from a few of my jet jock buddies. Maybe I should try to fit that in.”
Doing that would have been a scheduling nightmare because it would conflict with an east coast military conference we needed to attend. Splitting between the two would have been logistically challenging from Vegas to the east coast. More significantly, I knew Admiral Simpson at Tailhook was not a good idea.
“I probably don’t need to be there, though, do I Mark?” Admiral Simpson asked.
“Admiral, with all due respect, Tailhook is not for you. I don’t think you have any business being there as a flag officer, and surely no business being there as a P-3 NFO.”
In other words, he was too senior to be there, and he was not a carrier-based pilot who flew with a jet that had a tailhook. He was a land-based P-3 bubba, the head of the Jacksonville P-3 Mafia. He had no business being there. Fish out of water, for sure. More importantly, I had heard too many stories about it. Big drunk fest, and I knew he enjoyed a good party. Just not a good idea.
I’m not sure anyone else would have told him that. As the Loop, I had the license to be that direct. I knew him well. I was allowed to speak freely. And he had come to trust my advice and judgment. Loyalty to him required that I tell him exactly what I thought.
“Ouch, that hurt,” he said, laughing. “Let me think about it a few more days. But you’re probably right, Loop.”
A couple of days later, he passed my desk en route to his office. He tossed the Tailhook card invitation on my desk. “Yeah, let’s decline that Tailhook invitation. I spoke with Candy, and she agrees with you!”
Candy was his wife. As an aide, it was essential to have the support of and be in agreement with the admiral’s spouse as much as it was to be in good graces with the Admiral.
“Good, I’ll move forward with planning the details for the other trip,” I said.
Admiral Simpson did not attend the 35th Tailhook three-day symposium in early September 1991. Those who did know the rest of the story. Lieutenant Paula Coughlin and about 5000 other Navy and Marine Corps aviators did. Indeed, as I anticipated, there was a lot of alcohol and debauchery, including the unlawful sexual assault and harassment of Lieutenant Coughlin and other females. Media reported that Paula was specifically taunted and assaulted for being an admiral’s aide.
The group’s unruly and unconscionable behavior also resulted in thousands of dollars of damage to the Las Vegas Hilton. Coughlin bravely blew the whistle on the harassment she experienced and reported it to her boss.
Tailhook became front-page news and a national scandal. It was an inflection point for Naval aviation. Both the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Frank Kelso, and the Secretary of the Navy, H. Lawrence Garrett, attended Tailhook. Garrett ultimately resigned as SECNAV. The CNO retired early.
The subsequent formal investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Services revealed 140 cases of misconduct against over 80 female victims. By November of 91, Coughlin’s boss Admiral Snyder, himself an F-14 pilot and rising star as an Admiral at 47 years old, was relieved of command for failing to take timely action when Coughlin had reported to him that she had been abused.
Every admiral who attended Tailhook that year was investigated. The careers of 14 admirals and approximately 300 aviators were impacted. The fallout from Tailhook was significant. By 1993, the Secretary of the Navy officially censured three senior aviator Navy admirals. Over 30 senior officers were reprimanded, effectively ending their careers.
All senior officers who attended Tailhook had further promotions carefully screened by the Office of the Navy Inspector General. I know because I was attached to that Office as a reservist in 2005 - 2008 when Tailhook screening was still underway more than 15 years later. Promotions were held up for months. Many officers were not promoted based on allegations of attending or participating in Tailhook.
Tailhook ceased to exist for many years. I just saw that the 2022 Tailhook Symposium did take place in Reno, Nevada, and senior officers and admirals spoke there. It coincided with the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation. While I do believe there is significant value in meeting in person with other professional colleagues, there is no doubt that what occurred at the 1991 Tailhook in Las Vegas was unlawful and disgraceful.
To this day, I am sure Admiral Simpson was seriously considering going to Tailhook. And thankfully, he did not go.
I saw him years later. We both remembered that decision as one of the best ones “we” had ever made. That was a great example of his trusting my intuition.
Be loyal. Keep your boss and other colleagues out of and away from trouble. Speak up and say what is on your mind.
A sign at the flight school gate at Pensacola, Florida stated: “If there’s doubt, there’s no doubt.” I did not truly understand that as a junior officer, but the older I got, the more that made sense. It still does today.
My next post will discuss situational awareness and seniority - why it is important to know the org chart and who you are dealing with, in the military as well as your civilian job!