Greg McWherter, Navy Blue Angels leader

Navy investigates ex-Blue Angels commander after complaint he allowed sexual harassment
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post, 2014-04-23

The Navy has reassigned a former commander of the Blue Angels, its acrobatic fighter squadron, and is investigating allegations that the elite team of pilots was a hotbed of hazing, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, documents show.

The Navy announced Friday that it had relieved Capt. Gregory McWherter, a two-time commander of the Blue Angels, of duty for alleged misconduct. At the time, the Navy did not describe the nature of the accusations or provide other details except to say that the case remained under investigation.

But an internal military document that a Navy official inadvertently e-mailed to a Washington Post editor states that a former member of the Blue Angels filed a complaint last month accusing McWherter of promoting a hostile work environment and tolerating sexual harassment. The complaint described an atmosphere rife with sexually explicit speech, the open display of pornography and jokes about sexual orientation.

The Navy officer is the latest in a string of senior military commanders to come under investigation for sexual misconduct or other misbehavior. Congress and the White House have grown especially frustrated at the Pentagon’s struggles to police sex crimes and harassment in the ranks.

The Navy appeared to move swiftly after the former Blue Angels member filed the complaint March 24 with the Navy inspector general. The complaint alleged that McWherter encouraged or allowed sexual harassment and lewd activity to occur when he commanded the Blue Angels during two stints between 2008 and 2012.

McWherter did not respond to e-mails seeking comment. Late Wednesday, in response to a request for comment, the Navy confirmed the circumstances that led to the probe. The Navy also released a statement from Vice Adm. David H. Buss, the commander of Naval Air Forces, who said, “We remain fully committed to accountability, transparency, and protecting the integrity of ongoing investigations.”

According to McWherter’s bio-
graphy, which the Navy has removed from a public Web site, he is an alumnus of the Citadel and graduated from the Navy’s famous “Top Gun” fighter pilot school in 1995.

The Blue Angels are a flight demonstration team that performs daring maneuvers at air shows and before large crowds at other public events. It is a major honor for pilots selected to join; the Navy treats the squadron as a valuable recruitment tool and a vivid symbol of its aviation firepower.

The commander of the unit is chosen by a panel of admirals and serves as the Blue Angels’ lead pilot.

Although the investigation has not been completed, Navy officials decided that the preliminary findings warranted taking action. McWherter was fired from his new job as executive officer of Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. He has been temporarily reassigned to other duties.

Summaries of the complaint and investigation are contained in a five-page internal document, labeled “official use only,” that was drafted by Navy public affairs officers in anticipation of media coverage.

The document included talking points and prepared quotes attributed to Navy admirals, expressing concern about the gravity of the case. The material was being assembled in the event that further details of the investigation became public.

McWherter was a commander highly regarded by many in the Navy. He was brought back to lead the Blue Angels for a second stint in 2011 after the unit was temporarily grounded that year for performing a dangerous barrel roll too close to the ground during a show in Lynchburg, Va.

Upon leaving the team in November 2012, he told the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal that he had no regrets.

“If being with the Blue Angels was the last time I fly a Navy plane, that’s a pretty good way to go out,” he said.

In the face of several ethics scandals over the past 18 months, the Pentagon has repeatedly pledged to hold commanders accountable for their actions. At the same time, however, the military has tried to suppress details about many embarrassing episodes.

For example, the Army announced in June, without elaboration, that it had suspended its top general in Japan for allegedly mishandling a sexual assault case. On Tuesday, after obtaining a copy of the investigative report under the Freedom of Information Act, The Post disclosed that the general was given a plum job at the Pentagon even though he had violated regulations by failing to refer the sexual assault complaint to criminal investigators.

In January, after obtaining another batch of investigative documents, The Post reported that the Pentagon had disciplined three other generals for personal misconduct.

One was found guilty of assaulting his mistress. A second joked in e-mails that he sexually gratified himself after meeting a member of Congress whom he described as “smoking hot.” The third kept a bottle of vodka in his desk and was investigated for having an affair, according to the documents.

Accused Navy pilot Gregory McWherter resigns as Tailhook Association president
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post, 2014-04-25

For more than two decades, the Navy has labored to overcome and bury memories of perhaps the worst scandal in its history: the 1991 Tailhook convention, when crowds of drunken aviators sexually battered scores of women during a frenzied Las Vegas party.

As a result, the Navy brass is reeling over this week’s disclosure that one of its most prominent pilots is under investigation for allegedly fostering a culture of sexual harassment, hazing and lewd behavior.

The pilot, Capt. Gregory McWherter, is the former commander and public face of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s elite flight squadron. Less well known is the fact that until Friday, he also was president of the Tailhook Association, a nonprofit aviator fraternity that despite its past disgrace still draws thousands to its annual convention.

McWherter was relieved of duty as executive officer at Naval Base Coronado, near San Diego, on April 18, three weeks after Navy investigators received a complaint from a former member of the Blue Angels who accused him of tolerating and encouraging sexual misconduct. The Blue Angels perform thrilling maneuverers at air shows and have iconic status in the Navy.

In general, Navy aviators have tried to soften their reputation as a club of hard-drinking, chest-thumping daredevils with outdated attitudes toward women. The Tailhook conventions are more subdued these days. The gathering is held in Reno, Nev., instead of Las Vegas, and is now officially called a symposium.

The 1991 scandal, however, is still considered a dark stain on the Navy’s collective character. More than 140 pilots were investigated for assaulting at least 83 women, forcing many of them to run a gantlet in a hotel corridor. The term Tailhook — the name for the hook on an airplane that catches a cable while landing on an aircraft carrier — became synonymous with debauchery.

With that history, some officers worry about the Tailhook Association’s future if the Navy investigation finds proof that its president condoned sexual harassment or the mistreatment of women.

McWherter did not respond to e-mails seeking comment. On Friday, however, he submitted his resignation as president of the Tailhook Association, saying he didn’t want the inquiry to be a distraction, said Evan M. Chanik, a retired Navy vice admiral who serves as the group’s chairman.

“He didn’t want these distractions to inadvertently affect the Tailhook Association in any way, shape or form,” Chanik said. “I think that’s a mark of his character.”

The harassment investigation comes at a sensitive time for the military. Commanders are struggling to cope with what they describe as an epidemic of sex crimes in the ranks. Some lawmakers are pushing for an overhaul of the military justice system.

Chanik acknowledged that public perceptions about Tailhook and Navy aviators have been hard to shake. “Unfortunately there is that connection from 23 years ago, and people will do with that what they will,” he said. “But a lot of things have changed in the military and society since then.”

McWherter, whose pilot call sign is “Stiffy,” is a former instructor at the Navy’s Top Gun fighter weapons school and a graduate of the Citadel. He commanded the Blue Angels during two stints between 2008 and 2012.

Last month, a former member of the flight squadron filed a complaint with the Navy’s inspector general. It alleged that he tolerated sexual harassment and promoted a work atmosphere rife with hazing, pornographic displays and jokes about sexual orientation.

The Navy is still investigating, but Navy officials decided that the preliminary findings warranted McWherter’s removal from his job at Coronado.

Supporters are angry about his removal and have started a Facebook page filled with testimonials about his integrity.

“We want the Navy to know we support this man,” said Sherri Viniard, a friend from Covington, Ga., who set up the page. “Lots of people who know him and have worked with him know these allegations just can’t be true.”

Lt. Cmdr. Amy Tomlinson, the only female aviator to fly with the Blue Angels, served under McWherter from 2008 until 2010. She called him a “very, very good” commander and role model.

“I loved being a Blue Angel and I loved working with him,” said Tomlinson, who is now in the Navy Reserve. “I still hold him in very high regard, no matter what anybody says. He’s an outstanding leader in every way.”

Other women have been assigned to the team as support officers and in enlisted jobs.

Some veterans have grumbled that the world of Navy aviation has become too tame and emasculated in an overreaction to the 1991 Tailhook convention and other modern pressures to sanitize the workplace.

Former Navy secretary John Lehman has called the Tailhook investigations “a grotesquely disproportionate witch hunt” that caused pilots to become risk-averse and too worried about political correctness.

“Suspicions of sexual harassment, homophobia, telling of risque jokes, and speech likely to offend favored groups all find their way into fitness reports,” he wrote in a 2011 article for the Naval journal Proceedings. “And if actual hot-line investigations are then launched, that is usually the end of a career, regardless of the outcome.”

But Paula Coughlin, a retired Navy officer who was assaulted at the 1991 Tailhook convention, questioned whether the old culture and habits have changed much. When she was in the Navy, she recalled, the Blue Angels were particularly well known for masculine excesses.

“They came across as the most clean-cut family guys you ever saw, just perfect poster boys for military recruiting,” she said. “But when it came down to it, they were just a bunch of pigs. After the show was over and the lights went down, these were the guys totally on the prowl, always looking for a hookup.”

Former Blue Angels commander found guilty in Navy probe, reprimanded
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post, 2014-06-23

A former commander of the Navy’s elite Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron has been reprimanded after an investigation found he repeatedly failed to stop sexual harassment and condoned pornography, homophobia and lecherous behavior in the workplace.

Capt. Gregory McWherter, who served as commander of the Blue Angels in two stints between 2008 and 2012, was found guilty after a disciplinary hearing Monday, the Navy announced. He was given a letter of reprimand that will most likely end his Navy career, officials said.

A 63-page investigative report released by the Navy found that McWherter tolerated and encouraged a sex-obsessed environment in which Blue Angels pilots kept pornography in the cockpits of their jets and even painted a giant phallus on the roof of a trailer at their winter training home in El Centro, Calif.

The painting was rendered in blue and gold — the Blue Angels’ colors — and was so large that it was visible on satellite imagery available on Google Maps, according to the report. It has since been painted over.

The investigation of McWherter’s Blue Angels command found a pattern of other unethical behavior more typical of an “Animal House” fraternity than one of the most respected units in the U.S. Navy.

Hazing used to be common, and new arrivals were forced to wear “foam penis” hats. Pilots kept binoculars in their jets to ogle bikini-wearing women in air show crowds. Crew members for a time were allowed to buy custom-made Breitling watches at a cut-rate price of $500 — a fraction of their retail cost. The report didn’t specify who supplied the watches.

McWherter, whose pilot call sign was “Stiffy,” formerly had a cherished reputation in the Navy. A graduate of its “Top Gun” fighter-pilot school, he was brought back as Blue Angels commander in 2011 to restore order and morale at the unit after it was temporarily grounded for performing a dangerous stunt during an air show.

He also served as president of the Tailhook Association, the nonprofit fraternity of Navy aviators, until the investigation prompted him to resign last month.

The Navy’s investigative report was unsparing in criticizing his leadership after it found repeated evidence of raunchy locker-room antics.

“This Commanding Officer witnessed, accepted, and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic, and hostile,” Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, wrote. “He failed himself, failed those that he led, failed the Blue Angels, and failed the Navy.”

McWherter declined to comment through a Navy spokesman. He was relieved of command in April from his job as executive officer of Naval Base Coronado near San Diego and was temporarily reassigned to other duties pending the outcome of the investigation.

The Blue Angels perform thrilling maneuvers at air shows across the country and have iconic status in the Navy, for which they are a key recruiting tool.

The Navy opened its investigation in March after receiving a complaint from a former member of the Blue Angels, alleging sexual harassment and other problems under McWherter’s watch.

The report redacted the name of the complainant. No female pilot has ever flown as a member of the Blue Angels, although the team has had numerous women serve in support roles.

According to the investigation, some Blue Angels never expected that to change. In 2010, a lieutenant commander told a reporter for a Pensacola television station — in a conversation that was not broadcast — that the reason there were no female Blue Angels pilots was that “women want to have babies.”

Other pilots laughed. The complainant cited the remark, along with similar jokes and comments, as evidence of sex discrimination.

The investigation found relatively few problems during McWherter’s first stint as commander but said he encouraged a “sexually charged” workplace from 2011 to 2012.

For example, the Blue Angels set up a messaging group on their smart phones in which they swapped pornography — especially pictures of male genitalia — and engaged in “vulgar, homophobic” chats,” according to the report.

When one team member complained about pornography kept in cockpits, McWherter replied that it was “appropriate because it reflected a special trust shared between the pilot” and the crew.

The report said McWherter grudgingly ordered an end to the practice after someone filed an anonymous complaint with the commander of Naval Air Station Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels.

The report states that five other members of the Blue Angels squadron were investigated. A Navy spokesman said some former Blue Angels personnel received “formal written counseling” as a “non-punitive measure” but declined to say how many.

Several witnesses told Navy investigators that they saw nothing improper with the Blue Angels’ culture and defended McWherter’s leadership. Investigators concluded those witnesses “were either blind to the standard of what constitutes sexual harassment, oblivious to the things around them at the time, or otherwise biased towards support of CAPT McWherter at all costs.”