Navy Man Claims Aviator Call Signs Get Too Personal

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Steve Crowston

Ensign Steve Crowston.

In the testosterone-laden world of military aviation, call signs for pilots and other squadron personnel can be really sticky — the more an aviator complains about the moniker his colleagues bestow upon him, the tighter its grip will be.

Over the years, that has led to lots of embarrassing call signs beyond the famous one brandished by Tom Cruise — Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell — in the movie Top Gun. A rookie Navy aviator can end up being called "Torch" if he sports red hair — or if he's too quick to turn on his afterburner. A pilot who struggles to fit into his flight suit can be dubbed "Shamu." But as barriers to the once insular, made-up-of-white-men world have fallen — first to minorities, then women and, maybe soon, openly gay personnel — what's an edgy call sign to one person could be seen as an offensive epithet by another.

That's what led Ensign Steve Crowston to complain, he says, after Navy aviators in Strike Fighter Squadron 136 in Oceana, Va., considered many humiliating call signs for him before settling on "Romo's Bitch," a reference to their suspicion that the fan of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was gay. Crowston says the various options had been written on a whiteboard for an Aug. 17, 2009, "call-sign review" in the unit's ready room, where more than a dozen officers would decide which one would be most appropriate for several new squadron members. "I saw my name at the top of the board, and I saw 'Gay Boy,' 'Fagmeister,' 'Romo's Bitch,' 'Redskins,' 'Cowgirl' written underneath. I was stunned and shocked that I was sitting in the ready room with those kinds of words up on the board," Crowston says. "The commanding officer and executive officer" — the unit's top two officers — "were voting members, and they allowed the whole room to vote on my call sign. They went line by line, word by word, and they voted, and the one that got the most votes was 'Romo's Bitch.' "

Crowston, an administrative officer in the squadron and not an aviator, calls his sexual orientation "irrelevant" and wouldn't say whether he is gay. But he did complain, first within his unit and then to the office of the local Navy inspector general (IG), about workplace harassment. While the independent Navy Times newspaper reported last week that the IG found his complaint to be "unsubstantiated," Navy officers at the Pentagon later said the investigation has been reopened and that an additional inquiry into the squadron's command climate — and how the first investigation was handled — has been launched by Navy IG headquarters.

Navy officers at Oceana, citing the continuing investigation, won't detail what transpired in the ready room that day. They maintain that Crowston's overall performance at the unit was mediocre at best. They suggest that he complained to the IG six months after the ready-room session, and then only because he feared for his 16-year career. They and other officers say such informal call-sign reviews were simply a way to share some laughs with new members of the squadron. "Steve never had any call sign and was never addressed as anything but Steve, Mr. Crowston or Ensign Crowston," says Commander Liam "Bruno" Bruen, an F-18 pilot who was the unit's commanding officer until last month.

Still, the episode has raised the issue of questionable call signs, and Crowston has turned his allegations into a much broader campaign for change. In letters to some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Crowston said he saw a pilot's name with the call sign "" flashed on a screen as part of an official PowerPoint briefing. "I discovered '' had been engraved on a coffee mug and beer stein in [his unit's] ready room and was hung next to the Admiral's and the Carrier Air Wing Commander's coffee cups," Crowston said in a letter sent last month. "The chain of command is not willing to identify a systemic problem in the aviation community regarding inappropriate call signs."

Photo credit: Steve Crowston
A mug engraved with the call sign hangs with others in the ready room at VFA-136, the unit where Crowston served until recently

But former Navy Secretary and aviator John "Toad" Lehman disagrees. "I've been in and around naval aviation for like 40 years, and I've never heard of a call sign that had a nasty turn to it," says Lehman, who ran the Navy in the Reagan Administration and flew A-6 jets as a Navy Reserve aviator. The notion that call-sign guidelines need updating "is a crock," he says. "It's the first time I've ever heard of someone making an issue of a call sign," Lehman adds. "Certainly they would never pick on a gay guy like that."

Call signs — one- or two-word nicknames assigned by fellow pilots to facilitate radio communications in the sky — date to the dawn of aviation. There are no written rules governing their creation, and traditions surrounding them vary from unit to unit. Navy officers say calls signs can poke fun at aviators and their foibles but shouldn't be anything you couldn't explain to Mom.

"They can be a little bit ribald, but not too much," a Navy officer says. "And we count on our squadron leaders to keep it that way." One sign, "Groper," was frowned upon following the 1991 Tailhook scandal, when naval aviators sexually harassed and abused women during their annual convention in Las Vegas — even though the handle was a reference to the pilot's inability to feel for the cockpit controls while hooded during training. Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, killed in 1994 while trying to land her F-14 aboard a carrier, was dubbed "Hulk" for her ability to bench-press 200 lb., until her fame as a female top gun (and the makeup her TV appearances required) led colleagues to change it to "Revlon."

The key players in the ready-room incident are moving on, and up. Crowston has been assigned to a SEAL team support unit in Little Creek, Va., and could soon head off to Afghanistan or Iraq. Bruen, his former commander, will soon become the No. 3 officer aboard the carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis. And Commander Damien "Satan" Christopher, who was the No. 2 officer in the Oceana unit, is now its commander and is training for combat with the squadron aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise at sea.