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25 years before #MeToo, this woman fought like hell against sexual misconduct at work

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - More than 25 years before the #MeToo movement took hold, a Navy lieutenant blew the whistle on a culture that enabled sexual misconduct in the workplace. Decades later, Paula Coughlin is still fighting to keep a spotlight on the issue, specifically when it comes to sexual harassment and assault in the military.

Before "Time's Up" and hashtags and the Women's March, Coughlin was a one-woman army in the fight to stop women from being victimized at work. During an interview with Circa news partner "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson," Coughlin said, "My first priority -- and I think most victims' -- are, 'Oh my God. This can’t happen to another person.'"

Coughlin's call to action began in 1991. She had worked her way up the ranks of the U.S. Navy, becoming a helicopter pilot, lieutenant and admiral's aide. On a trip to an annual conference for naval aviators, the Tailhook Symposium, she was attacked in the hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton in what was known as "The Gauntlet."

"People grabbed my arms and legs, my clothing, knocking me to the floor and trying to take my clothes off and reaching under my clothes, grabbing me, anything they could reach," Coughlin explained. "And one guy reached under my skirt to try and take my underwear off."

"It was completely an unexpected, surprise attack."
Paula Coughlin, whistleblower

Coughlin was one of dozens of women assaulted by a mob of military men attending Tailhook. It was a notorious ritual for Navy men. And a secret kept from Navy women.

"I really kicked and punched my way out. I ran into the Secretary of the Navy’s aide and he said, 'You didn’t just go through that hallway did you?'

Paula Coughlin
Paula Coughlin of Protect Our Defenders participates on a panel addressing sexual assault and harrassment during Veterans Day: Television and the Military Experience, a special Television Academy member event, on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018 at the Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Phil McCarten/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

"I said, 'Yeah. What was that?' You know, I was stunned that it was something organized.

"He said, 'Oh man you should have been warned.'"

Coughlin then made it her mission to not just stop what happened at Tailhook, but also get the military to start seriously examining the culture that made it possible. She eventually went public with her story after taking complaints up the chain of command and getting nowhere. Eventually, an investigation found 83 women and seven men were assaulted at the convention. In all, 117 Navy officers were implicated.

There’s been plenty of tough talk about sexual misconduct in the military in the decades since Coughlin blew the whistle, with everyone from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to former President Barack Obama talking about the need for zero tolerance. Still, Coughlin knows little has changed.

Sexual harassment and assaults remain a huge problem for the military, not just at one yearly conference, but at bases across the country. A recent Rand report commissioned by the Pentagon detailed stunning findings, including eight installations with more than 500 sexual assaults a year. One base, Fort Hood, had almost 900 sexual assaults per year, according to the report. The Pentagon has promised more training, more awareness and more research in the wake of the release.

"Full Measure" and Circa offered the Pentagon the opportunity to do an on-camera interview. It declined, sending a statement calling the Rand report a valuable first look: "It adds to DOD’s growing knowledge base, and it reflects the Department’s commitment to employing the full spectrum of proven solutions to combat sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other behaviors in conflict with good order and discipline. These and other efforts will ultimately provide our military leaders with actionable information to target interventions within specific installations."

"If you have a better chance of being raped than you had to be injured in combat, we know the number is too high."
Retired Col. Don Christensen, Protect Our Defenders

But with all its momentum, Coughlin points out the #MeToo movement hasn’t turned its spotlight on the people who serve our country, despite alarming statistics. "I was kind of annoyed by the TIME magazine cover with all of those really brave women and none of them were in the military. We have a tremendous number of women and men that come forward without a hashtag. There are women in the military today that have spoken up that need, that need recognition," Coughlin said.

Coughlin keeps fighting to help military survivors, both men and women, get the attention they deserve. She works with an organization called Protect Our Defenders, lobbying Congress and advocating on behalf of service members who’ve been victimized on the job. There are no A-list actresses speaking up here. No TV stars walking the halls of Capitol Hill on behalf of this group.

For this cause and in this fight, Coughlin was the celebrity. She still is.

"Being the whistleblower for Tailhook was probably, you know, almost an honor. It needed to happen and I feel, now, that maybe I was in the right place at the right time." Coughlin said. "I don’t necessarily agree with most of the decisions that military has made in handling the problem, but you know, the battle continues."

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