Lang Sias’ military records as a Navy fighter pilot gush with praise.
“Combat proven aviator.” “A rising star.” “The top lieutenant.”
Now Colorado’s Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Sias had a Navy career that spanned more than 11 years and included medals for combat operations in Desert Storm and the most prestigious position at the Topgun training program.
One award took his F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter squadron to the Tailhook symposium in Las Vegas in 1991 — and put Sias in the middle of what would become one of the biggest scandals in American military history.
Well-known within the ranks as a venue for excess and debauchery, the annual convention exploded into public view after a female Navy lieutenant said she was sexually assaulted at the raucous 1991 event that featured a “gauntlet” of drunk military men. The fallout led to numerous military investigations, accusations of a cover up, congressional action and the resignation of the secretary of the Navy.
A Department of Defense report in 1993 revealed that 83 women and seven men were assaulted at the three-day event. The inquiries served as a wake-up call about the military’s culture toward women, one that resonates even more deeply today in the #MeToo era.
Sias, the running mate to Republican Walker Stapleton, attended the conference and gave testimony in the military hearings that followed. A Colorado Sun review of thousands of pages of military records and dozens of published accounts of the 1991 convention shows:
- He flew to the symposium with his commander in an F/A-18 jet, instead of the standard transport plane.
- He attended one of the parties that became a focal point of an investigation.
- He told investigators an account that conflicted with that of his superior about what happened that night at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.
Sias was not publicly accused of misconduct and no disciplinary action related to the Tailhook scandal is listed in his military records, which were provided by the Stapleton campaign.
Still, what he saw at the convention, how he conducted himself and how he viewed the investigation may add context to his views on related issues, including his votes as a state lawmaker.
But Tailhook is a topic Sias is not willing to discuss in detail. In an interview this week, The Colorado Sun asked Sias at least nine times in a 17-minute interview about what he saw at Tailhook, but Sias refused to directly answer each time. Instead, he repeated iterations of the same line.
“I was never accused of doing anything wrong ever by anybody at any time,” he told The Sun and its television partner, CBS4. “You’ve seen my records, and there’s no way that I would have the fitness reports that I have … if there were any blemishes on my record.”
His connections to the Tailhook controversy arose in 2010 when he ran unsuccessfully for the 7th Congressional District seat, but he did not answer questions about it then, either.
“I didn’t do anything improper or illegal, nor did I witness that sort of activity from my fellow aviators,” he told The Sun, echoing what he told Complete Colorado, a conservative blog, in 2010.
Stapleton touted Sias’ military record in naming him to the No. 2 spot on the ticket. The campaign manager said he knew about Sias’ connection to Tailhook before he was picked for the Republican ticket
“It’s a proven fact that Lang has a sterling military record, and his well-documented 30 years of military service and spotless performance reports outweighed concerns about baseless guilt by association attacks that shamelessly attempt to smear a combat veteran,” said campaign manager Michael Fortney in a statement.
Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about Sias and Tailhook
The Tailhook Symposium
The event is hosted by the Tailhook Association, a private organization for pilots that received Navy support, and its reputation as a rowdy party was clear well before it celebrated its 35th convention in 1991.
In 1985, a Navy vice admiral wrote a letter that described the parties at the hotel as “grossly appalling” and “a rambunctious drunken melee,” according to a 1992 report from the Department of Defense Inspector General.
Sias told The Sun he knew Tailhook existed before he attended, “but I didn’t know a whole lot about it.”
In 1991, about 5,000 people attended the conference, and most of the parties took place on the third-floor hospitality suites, where a Pentagon investigation found “more than isolated instances” of public nudity, women “drinking from dildos that dispensed alcoholic beverages,” and a gauntlet of aviators that would line the hotel hallway and grope or otherwise assault women as they walked through. The damage to the hotel cost $23,000 that year.
Sias attended a party with members of his VAF-83 squadron — known as the Rampagers — that involved strippers and plenty of alcohol, according to an account in William McMichael’s book, “Mother of All Hooks,” a detailed account of the scandal and its fallout published in 1997.
Lang Sias at Tailhook
At the time of Tailhook, Sias was a lieutenant in his fifth year with the Navy and a training officer at Naval Air Station Cecil Field, a now-defunct base near Jacksonville, Florida. He went by the call sign “Hogg.” He joined the Navy after completing law school.
He attended the Tailhook conference with Cmdr. Bob Stumpf to receive an award — the squadron ranked as the Navy’s top F/A-18 unit for its service in the Persian Gulf War.
Stumpf and Sias flew to the conference in an F/A-18 jet, instead of the Navy C-9 passenger jet with the rest of the unit, because of a scheduling conflict for Stumpf, according to the book.
Stumpf had the ability to authorize the trip for cross-country flight training, the book states, and Sias told The Sun that he was “on orders” to fly.
The use of the combat jet for transportation later became a point of criticism for Stumpf. The Navy paid nearly $400,000 to fly about 1,730 attendees to Tailhook, the investigation found.
Asked about the flight three times, Sias eventually told The Sun: “I think we behaved appropriately, and I think that’s documented in the record.”
After the award ceremony, Sias went to a party on the third floor. He refused to discuss it but said he didn’t see anything “improper or illegal.”
But late in the night, probably near midnight, two exotic dancers came to the party, and one later performed oral sex on one of the aviators, according to the military investigation.
The Tailhook investigations
Much of the attention of investigators focused on higher ranked officers, like Stumpf, the squadron commander. Some junior officers received immunity for testimony or non-public admonishments.
In the book and other published accounts, witnesses placed Stumpf in the room at the same time as the strippers, but he left before the sex act occurred, according to a 1993 Navy inquiry that cleared Stumpf. It’s not clear when Sias left. He shared a hotel room with Stumpf at the conference.
In testimony before a military board, Sias said he didn’t remember seeing Stumpf at the party, according to the book, but Stumpf later said he was at the party.
In an interview with The Sun, Sias declined to address the apparent inconsistency. “I would simply say the record and the facts stand for themselves,” Sias said. “If I had said something that created a conflict or otherwise was illegitimate on my part that would have been reflected in my record.”
Stumpf performed Sias’ evaluation for the time period covering Tailhook and called him “an extremely conscientious and hard working officer,” awarding all top marks. Stumpf did not return calls at his home seeking comment for this story.
Sias testified in September 1993 on behalf of Stumpf, who was then the commander of the Blue Angels, and urged the military review board to exonerate him. “With all due respect, I ask that you right the wrong that has been done so far, acquit him, and put him back in the Number One jet of the Blue Angels,” Sias is quoted as saying in “Mother of All Hooks.”
In total, a Pentagon report determined that 117 officers were implicated in one or more cases of assault, indecent exposure or conduct unbecoming an officer and 51 additional individuals made false statements during the investigation. “Furthermore, several hundred other officers were aware of the misconduct and chose to ignore it,” the investigation concluded.
The public outcry
The Tailhook scandal outraged leaders in Washington. The Senate Armed Services Committee temporarily froze upwards of 4,500 Navy promotions, according to reports and records, effectively ending some careers and leading to the departure of others, including Stumpf.
From the perspective of some in the military, the intense scrutiny was an overreaction by civilian leaders that hurt the military’s morale and stature, as McMichael suggests in his book. Sias declined to answer questions about his views on the investigations.
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, served at the time of the scandal and helped lead a push for answers. The investigation went high into the command, she recalled in a recent interview, and “it was pretty scandalous from that standpoint.”
“If anyone was there,” said Schroeder, who’s a key backer of Democratic candidate Jared Polis in the governor’s race, “I don’t know how you could miss it because it was so out of control.”
The fact Sias attended the conference, she acknowledged, does not disqualify him from the job of lieutenant governor, but it does raise questions.
Former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, a Republican from Colorado and former Navy pilot, remembers the controversy from his tenure in Washington.
“As you know, sometimes folks who fly planes have an extended sense of risk and sometimes respond to it,” he said in an interview with The Sun. “It wasn’t a culture that was fatally flawed. You also had a certain percentage of any group that drinks too much and that was part of it — and who misbehaves. I think it was a healthy thing for the service to do, to weed out those who couldn’t control themselves.”
As Brown recalls, anybody who misbehaved at Tailhook in 1991 “ended up having their career ended.” He added, “If you were at the conference and didn’t misbehave, you probably deserve some accolades.”
Sias’ career continued to flourish in the years that followed. He retired from the Navy in May 1998 but joined the Air National Guard for an additional 16 years, stepping down as a lieutenant colonel.