|By Jane Ann Morrison, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 14, 2009 - The Navy helicopter pilot who smashed the cone of silence around the 1991 Tailhook convention at the Las Vegas Hilton and changed the way the military handled women's claims of sexual abuse is now a yoga teacher.
A recent photo of Paula Coughlin-Puopolo in the Wall Street Journal Magazine caught my eye even before I recognized her. She looked serene. Maybe it was her garden. Maybe it was her lotus position. The flight suit she was wearing was a reminder this was a military woman whose career dead-ended after she complained about her sexual assault.
The Journal reported she now lives in Atlantic Beach, Fla., and used her $5 million jury award from the Hilton Hotels Corp. to open her yoga business, Ocean Yoga.
In September 1991, Paula stepped out of an elevator on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton and was pawed, pinched and mauled by a horde of drunken aviators attending the Tailhook Association Convention. She feared she was about to be gang raped as men tried to pull off her underwear. It was supposed to be all in fun, of course. And some women were willing participants, who enjoyed the tradition of "the Gantlet."
But Paula was not of their ilk. She complained the next day to her boss, a rear admiral, and she testified he answered: "That's what you get when you go down a hallway full of drunken aviators."
He said he'd check it out. Nothing happened. So in 1992, she went to the press.
Turns out Paula was one of 83 women and seven men who were sexually assaulted that year -- and the '91 convention was considered tamer than previous years.
Then she sued. The Tailhook Association settled before the 1994 trial for about $400,000.
Hilton fought her claims the hotel had an obligation to protect its guests. One of her claims: There were three security guards on the third floor who did nothing to help her. During the trial, a Hilton attorney had three life-size cutouts of the guards placed in the courtroom. He asked: Had she seen them?
Her memorable answer: No. She hadn't seen them. "But for all the good they did, they might just as well have been made of cardboard."
U.S. District Judge Philip Pro allowed testimony about the rowdy behavior at prior Tailhook conventions to show Hilton officials knew and should have taken extra steps to protect guests.
Barron Hilton testified via videotape, relaxed and puffing on his cigar. Then the jury found in her favor.
Another disgraceful episode emerged in 1995 when Senate Judiciary Chairman Mark James, R-Las Vegas, worked to pass a tort reform bill sought by lobbyist Harvey Whittemore. It contained language that would retroactively void the jury verdict against the Hilton. After the abuses at Tailhook were rehashed by the news media, that part of the tort reform bill was removed. What a national embarrassment that would have been if Nevada lawmakers rather than a court, had overturned a jury verdict to save Hilton $5 million.
Paula told me Wednesday she's never been back to Las Vegas since the trial. "Two things came to be clear to me in Las Vegas. It's a one-industry town and there's those that have a deep, vested interest in making money from gambling." But the cabdrivers, the hotel maids, the restaurant staff, "the ones who made the least amount of money from the industry, were the most supportive. They were really interested in seeing some kind of justice. Everyone else was concerned with protecting their financial interests."
After the Wall Street Journal story was published, she received a few nasty e-mails. Some still hate her for what she did. But she also heard from parents, including a dad who wrote to her that his adult children, a daughter and a son, have better lives in today's military because of her actions 18 years ago.
Although the R&R slogan wasn't created until 2003, the "what happens here, stays here" motto seems to have been the '91 Tailhook-style of operation, paralleling that unwritten military tradition "what happens overseas, stays overseas."
Paula Coughlin-Puopolo, now 47, owns a piece of Las Vegas history as well as military history. She made sure what happened here didn't stay hidden, in a hotel hallway or the Nevada Legislature.
She refused to be silent.
Jane Ann Morrison's column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison/.
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