By Andrea Shalal-Esa
RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - Twenty-one years after it became synonymous with sexual assault and out-of-control fighter pilots, the annual Tailhook convention of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators has been cleaned up.
Spouses and children are welcomed at the convention now, and organizers keep careful tabs on bad behavior. Beer and liquor still flow freely in hospitality suites after the day's panel discussions end, but the atmosphere is a far cry from the drunken, raucous parties that characterized the event in the late 1980s through 1991, according to naval aviators who have been attending for years.
While Tailhook has been fixed, the U.S. military is still grappling with a persistent sexual assault problem that has so far proven stubbornly immune to remedy.
New scandals have broken out, most notably at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where 39 people have alleged that they were raped or sexually harassed by trainers.
Pentagon figures show sexual assault cases in 2011 virtually unchanged from the previous year at 3,192, but many cases still go unreported. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has estimated there could be 19,000 sexual assaults each year, a number he said was "unacceptable."
In an interview at Tailhook, Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said it was up to military leaders to fix a climate in which women have been reluctant to report assaults.
"We are going after this thing with a vengeance. I'm serious about it. This is important to me. This is unit readiness, this is combat readiness, this is morale," Amos said.
In March, eight women, including an active-duty Marine and several Marine Corps veterans, filed a lawsuit saying that they were raped, assaulted or sexually harassed while in the service, and retaliated against when they complained.
The lawsuit focuses on one of the most prestigious military bases in the Marine Corps, the downtown Washington barracks that also houses the commandant's home.
BROAD PENTAGON INITIATIVE
The Marine effort that Amos is leading is part of a broader Pentagon initiative to boost prosecutions for sexual assaults, establish special victims' units at all the military services, and train new recruits within their first two weeks.
In 1991, scandal erupted when dozens of Marine Corps and Navy aviators were accused of sexually assaulting 83 women and 7 men at the Tailhook convention in Las Vegas.
The incident, investigated by the Pentagon's Inspector General, effectively ended the careers of dozens of Navy and Marine Corps officers and focused attention on many challenges facing women in the military.
Amos, then the commanding officer of a squadron in Beaufort, South Carolina, did not attend Tailhook in 1991, but said this year's event - it is now held in Reno, Nevada - is the polar opposite of those days, while still allowing participants to have fun.
Prostitutes and strippers were common at Tailhook in that earlier era. This year, one local woman hired to tend bar in one of the suites or "admins" was asked to leave after she appeared to be soliciting some of the guests, according to one mid-level military official who asked not to be named.
Amos faulted the military leaders in charge in 1991 for creating a climate that allowed the assaults to occur, and said he was trying to ensure a better working environment now.
In July, Amos brought about 70 of the Marine Corps' 85 generals to Washington to get them personally engaged in a new campaign against sexual assaults, which includes classes, interactive videos and frank discussions with military higher-ups about what behaviors constitute sexual assault.
"I looked every general officer in the eye ... and I said, 'You are solely responsible for the command climate,'" Amos said, calling it shameful that women were afraid to report cases of sexual assault to higher-ups for fear of reprisals.
"Why do they not come forward? because they don't have confidence in the leadership. They don't think we're going to do anything about it. Well, shame on us," he said.
Amos is taking a similarly aggressive approach to ethics in general. He just completed his 27th speech to troops around the world about ethics after a series of incidents that provoked outrage in Afghanistan, including a video that showed Marines urinating on corpses.
"It's all about ethics and reminding Marines about what's acceptable behavior," the four-star general told Reuters, adding that a very small percentage of troops were "not aligned with what I call a moral compass to true north."
Amos said the number of reported sexual assaults will likely initially increase as victims become more confident that they will not face reprisals. But in the longer run, he said, he hoped to see the number of assaults decline.
Navy Captain Sara Joyner, commander of the air wing attached to the USS Truman aircraft carrier and a member of the Tailhook board, said the Navy is also undertaking extraordinary efforts to address sexual assaults, which are often linked to alcohol use.
She said officials realized that they needed to overcome their discomfort and tackle sexual assault head-on, rather than just assuming that sailors knew such acts were inappropriate.
"It's up to all of us to prevent something of this nature from happening. It's just not good for our units or cohesion ... It takes away from our focus on warfighting," said Joyner, who described her own early experiences a female fighter pilot as "extremely challenging."
Sergeant Mallory Vanderschans, who joined the Marines as a combat engineer at age 19 and now works as the commandant's photographer, said she has never encountered sexual harassment during her six years in the military.
She said she had barely heard of the Tailhook scandal of 1991 before accompanying Amos to the convention this weekend. "I was five when that all happened," she said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)