When Lt. Paula Coughlin reported to her admiral about being sexually assaulted, she was met with indifference.
Instead of giving up, Coughlin fought back. She is now a member of the Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Group, and is seeking to spread awareness about sexual assault and rape in the military.
On Oct. 23 and 25, Coughlin is joining One Jax Institute at UNF and the UNF Women’s Center, to host a screening of The Invisible War, an investigative documentary about rape in the military. The screenings will take place in the Student Union Auditorium at 7 p.m.
Along with spreading awareness, Coughlin said the movie also aims to let victims know that there is a support system out there for them, and there is a support system at UNF.
“I have been involved in UNF’s Women’s Center and they’ve asked me to participate in a few events here at UNF over the years, allowing me to incorporate my experience in the military as part of the Women’s Center’s message of victim advocacy,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin, who was a victim in a sexual assault case called the Tailhook Scandal, will be doing a question and answer segment after the screening. She now serves as an outlet to other victims and a fountain of knowledge on this subject after experiencing it first hand.
The Tailhook Scandal took place at the 35th annual Tailhook Association Symposium in 1991 in Las Vegas. The Tailhook Association is a non-profit organization made up of former navy aviators, both men and women.
Coughlin was serving as the admiral’s assistant when she got off of an elevator in the hotel where the conference took place and came across what was called “the gauntlet,” a long hallway where more than 200 men waited for women to get off of the elevator.
As Coughlin ran down “the gauntlet,” the men in the hall surrounded her, attempting to rip her clothes off and sexually assault her.
Coughlin brought the report directly to her admiral who replied, “that’s what you get.” But Coughlin would not take that for an answer. She wrote a letter explaining what she had endured and hand delivered it to the Pentagon.
“I became somewhat of a public figure because I carried my complaint about that assault all the way to the chain of command, all the way up to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy,” said Coughlin.
After Coughlin met with President George H. W. Bush, an investigation around the incident was launched. It turned out more than 38 other women were subjected to the same kind of cruel behavior while attending the Tailhook Convention.
Some of those who actively participated in the scandal were moved up in rank, although their women and male counterparts were accusing them of sexual assault. Coughlin resigned from the Navy and sued the Tailhook Association shortly after. The Las Vegas Hotel, where the scandal took place, was accused of providing poor security at the convention.
Coughlin was the first to speak out and still continues to fight for others in the military who are experiencing some of the same issues. The Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Board is now spearheading similar problems by releasing petitions online, prompted by a similar scandal in 2009 at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Now Coughlin is coming to UNF to continue spreading the word about her cause through the documentary screening.
Sheila Spivey, the director of the UNF Women’s Center, said students have a lot to learn from the film and the event.
“The students will learn about the rape culture and how the voices of the women in the military have been silenced, as well as an issue of them suffering from retaliation when they come forward to report the sexual assault,” Spivey said.
Gurgen Petrosyan, a UNF international studies junior and also a member of the military, said it’s a horrible thing when one soldier attacks another.
“It is tragic because we are professionals,” he said.
Email Kasandra Ortiz at [email protected]