One day I’m mulling over various topics for this column. The next day I’m standing in a hushed crowd outside of a neighbor’s house.
We are waiting for the crew of the TV drama series “NCIS: New Orleans” to finish shooting a scene inside the residence.
I am anticipating an (unscripted) meeting with D’Wayne W. Swear, the show’s technical advisor and a retired chief of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in New Orleans, now located at the naval air base at Belle Chasse.
Swear’s 25-year career with NCIS is said to have inspired the main character of “NCIS: New Orleans,” Special Agent Dwayne Pride (played by Scott Bakula). Pride leads a team of highly trained federal agents who take down terrorists and spies, shoot it out with dangerous killers or solve cold case homicides in just 48 minutes – excluding TV commercials. (Nielsen ratings will later show “NCIS: New Orleans” cracked TV’s top 10 prime-time network programs.)
At the moment, we remain frozen. “Cut!” someone yells. The people around me, actors and crew, resume talking and moving around.
I meet Swear under an oak tree. He is barrel-chested and friendly. Sorry, he says, he cannot talk to reporters without approval from CBS-TV.
“What would the angle for the piece be?” Katie Barker, a vice president for CBS Entertainment Communications, asks via email. I tap out a reply: “For a day at least, a popular TV show provides a respite for area residents weary of chronic drug-fueled crime and public corruption” (and a veteran journalist welcoming a break).
Waiting for Barker’s response, I realize I know little about the real-life NCIS, other than its local agents assisted local police after Katrina hit in 2005. I begin reading.
There are some 2,000 NCIS agents worldwide spread over more than 40 Navy and Marine bases and ships. They investigate terrorism, espionage and incidences of homicide, rape, child abuse and other felonies involving Navy and Marine personnel, military and civilian.
The modern NCIS evolved from the ruins of the Navy/Marine Tailhook sex abuse scandal of 1991, 25 years ago.
President George H. W. Bush appointed New Orleanian Sean O’Keefe, a confidant of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to reform both the Navy and NCIS’ predecessor, the Naval Investigative Services (NIS).
A total of 83 women, including officers, and seven men were assaulted by Navy and Marine aviators during a three-day convention at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Many of the victims were sexually molested as they attempted to pass a gauntlet of rowdy junior officers in a hotel foyer.
A month later, Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot, dropped a bombshell at a press conference. Coughlin described how she fought back against a crowd of men who groped at her breasts and buttocks in a third-floor hallway of the Hilton. Other Navy women filed sexual assault complaints with authorities investigating Tailhook, including the NIS.
Problems with the agency’s investigation soon surfaced.
In 1992, The Los Angeles Times reported the commander of the NIS, an admiral, “disparaged female pilots as ‘go-go’ dancers” and told Pentagon officials he didn’t believe that women belonged in the military. An NIS investigator made “romantic overtures” to an apparent victim, calling her “sweetcakes” as she looked through photographs for her sexual assailants.
A Pentagon investigation excoriated the NIS’ probe of the scandal, finding the agency shielded the Navy from criticism and unduly limited findings of sexual misconduct to junior officers.
“Frontline,” the investigative program on public television, reported: “Ultimately, the careers of 14 admirals and almost 300 naval aviators were scuttled or damaged by Tailhook,” the NIS admiral among them.
No one was criminally prosecuted. Dozens of aviators were disciplined internally.
Tailhook played a “major role” in the beginning of the end of a Pentagon policy excluding women from combat, says retired Navy Captain Robert L. Beck, author of a book on the scandal. In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the ban on women in combat; final restrictions were removed for all positions in all the armed forces earlier this year, Beck wrote in a guest column for the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, marking the 25th anniversary of the convention in September.
“Concerns that women might have physical or psychological deficiencies that would keep them from serving in these positions were eventually dispelled by studies of actual combat conditions, by training and by changing perceptions of a new generation of American war fighters.”
Sexual assault remains a major problem for the Navy, Marines and NCIS.
“We’ve got to focus on sexual assault prevention,” Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s highest-ranking military officer, told a Tailhook convention in 2013. “It happened here in this association years ago and it can happen anywhere. It [sexual assault] is the challenge of our times. It’s a safety issue … our kids deserve a climate of dignity and respect and a good place to work.”
Rear Admiral Ann Burkhardt, Chief of Naval Personnel, says all sailors received scenario-based training on sexual assault prevention by Sept. 30, 2016. “We want our sailors to live and act, on- and off-duty, on- and off-line … as professionals who treat each other with dignity and respect,” she said.
NCIS Director Andrew Traver didn’t respond in time for publication to our requests for a retrospective on the progress of women in the Navy since Tailhook, and for recent NCIS sex crime statistics. After his presidential appointment in 2013, Traver told Navy Times that complaints of sexual assaults are one of the “biggest things we wrestle with” at NCIS.
CBS Entertainment declined a request for an interview with former NCIS Chief Swear, suggesting topics such as NCIS rape investigations and Tailhook were “more suited for an interview with the real agency, not our show.”
I watched the season premiere of “NCIS: New Orleans” anyway. A lot of viewers are upset that the popular character Agent Brody has left the show. I’m more impressed that the actress C. C. H. Pounder has become New Orleans’ first black female coroner (an elected position). All it took for Pounder to get the job was a script change.