Senior military officials sanctioned for more than 500 cases of serious misconduct
(USA Today) – Since 2013, military investigators have documented at least 500 cases of serious misconduct among its generals, admirals and senior civilians, almost half of those instances involving personal or ethical lapses, a USA TODAY investigation has found.
Many cases involve sex scandals, including a promiscuous Army general who led a swinging lifestyle, another who lived rent-free in the home of a defense contractor after his affair fell apart and another who is under investigation for sending steamy Facebook messages to the wife of an enlisted soldier on his post.
Yet despite the widespread abuses, the Pentagon does no trend analysis to determine whether the problem is worsening, nor does it regularly announce punishments for generals and admirals — all public figures, USA TODAY has found. Senior officers found to have been involved in adulterous relationships, a violation of the military’s code of justice, have been reassigned with no public notice and allowed to retire quietly, in some cases with full honors.
Industries ranging from tech to finance to Hollywood have been roiled by sexual harassment and assault scandals that have led to the ouster of top executives and calls for reform. The accusations this month against film producer Harvey Weinstein by dozens of women have reportedly prompted criminal investigations in the United States and United Kingdom, along with his removal from the company he founded.
In the military, as with the Weinstein case, sexual harassment by top brass in many cases is considered an open secret, documents show. Yet many stay quiet, and efforts on Capitol Hill to reform the system and call senior officers to account have often failed.
Instead, the military has often closed ranks. The Pentagon doesn’t publicly discuss most cases, though USA TODAY has identified several, including five since 2016 that have involved senior officers in the Army, Air Force and Navy. Nor does the military seem interested in getting to the root of the problem. In 2014, then-Defense secretary Chuck Hagel created an office to investigate ethical problems among senior leaders. It was shuttered two years later without determining the depth of the problem, a task Hagel gave it when he opened the office.
“This is another example of top (Pentagon) officials refusing to demand accountability and sweeping major ethical problems from commanders under the rug to the detriment of the men and women who serve admirably under them,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, told USA TODAY.
Because the Pentagon obscures the extent of the sexual scandals, problems emerge piecemeal as new cases are ferreted with the aid of whistle-blowers. The Army, for example, was unaware that Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington was sending Facebook Live messages to the wife of a sergeant until USA TODAY showed them to officials. He was fired on Oct.13.
What prompts these men at the pinnacle of their profession to take reckless risks with their families, careers and reputations? Several factors play a role, according to members of Congress, former top officials and officers. There is often a sense of entitlement that can stem from bosses with eager-to-please staffs and some military leaders who view themselves as royalty, according to a former top military prosecutor.
Whatever the reasons for the misbehavior, two things are clear: The military hasn’t corrected it. Nor has it been able to transform a culture that enables the abuse.
Former Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James, who disciplined several senior officers for misconduct, sees organizations with strong hierarchies dominated by men at the heart of the problem.
“At its core, what’s behind misconduct among leaders in the military or politics or business sector is a lot of power, a lot of authority, and sometimes that begets bad behavior,” James said. “It’s a failure of integrity. … The rash of instances in recent years reveals a group of people who didn’t think they’d get caught.”
Some did get caught, including:
• Former Army major general David Haight, the “swinging general” who had an 11-year affair that featured trysts at sex clubs around the country. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.
• Army Brig. Gen. Michael Bobeck, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was fired last year for having an affair. Bobeck had lived for a time rent-free in the home of a defense contractor, an arrangement the Pentagon inspector general deemed acceptable.
• Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, was suspended and ultimately fired after USA TODAY revealed that he was under investigation for sending texts to a younger woman who was married to a soldier on their post in Italy. The flirty messages included Harrington’s requests to the woman to delete them. She didn’t.
Other services are not exempt from scandal.
In February, retired Air Force general Arthur Lichte was docked two stars after an investigation confirmed that he had coerced a junior officer into having sex with him.
Boorish behavior and worse isn’t the sole province of the brass. USA TODAY also reported last month that the spokesman for Adm. John Richardson was fired from his job in August for incidents stemming from a boozy Christmas party inside the Pentagon. Several women complained that the officer, Cmdr. Chris Servello, had slapped one on the buttocks, subjected another to unwanted hugs and pursued another so strenuously an investigator last December labeled it “predatory.”
Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, declined to respond to question directly, instead issuing a statement through a spokeswoman.
“Officer misconduct has and will always be taken seriously by Sec. Mattis and our senior officers who are expected to serve as exemplary leaders within the armed forces,” Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Ochoa said.
Gillibrand and others who have taken the military to task in recent years for its efforts to eliminate sexual assault aren’t buying the Pentagon’s tough talk. “Commanders are not doing their part to end this climate of sexual harassment and sexual assault and devaluing women,” Gillibrand said.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. A series of scandals involving top officers, sex and booze earlier in the decade rocked the Pentagon. Leaders vowed to identify the depth of the problem and attack it.
Among the most spectacular has been the Navy’s “Fat Leonard” scandal, which takes its name from portly Leonard Glenn Francis, the former chief of Glenn Defense Marine Asia. For years, Francis, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, bribed Navy officers with cash, prostitutes, caviar and champagne in exchange for information he used to gouge the government for servicing its ships in Asian ports.
Depth, scope unknown
Hagel, outraged by that and other scandals, created an office, staffed by a two-star admiral, to get answers about military brass who seemed to have lost their ethical compasses.
“We need to find out: Is there a deep, wide problem?” Hagel announced in 2014. “If there is, then what’s the scope of that problem? How did this occur?”
Hagel and the Pentagon never found out. The Office of the Senior Adviser for Military Professionalism, run by Rear Adm. Margaret Klein, was shuttered in 2016 without exploring the depth of the Pentagon’s problems with bad generals.
In a recent interview, Hagel told USA TODAY he wanted more from the office. “If I would have stayed as secretary of Defense, we would not have shut that office down as soon as it was shut down,” he said. “
“You also have to get your arms around the depth, the width, the scope,” he said. “Is this just the matter of a few individuals getting in trouble? Is it wider, is it deeper?”
A Pentagon release cited Klein’s office’s production, including a series of efforts aimed at “leader and character development.” The list of accomplishments includes bromides about “effective integration and implementation of ongoing efforts to further military professionalism, moral and ethical decision making, and the traditional values of military service.”
It said nothing about determining how many generals and admirals had run amok, which service was best or which was the worst. That’s clearly not what Hagel had in mind.
The Pentagon inspector general documented at least 100 incidents of misconduct a year since 2013. The incidents are included in semi-annual reports to Congress, and include a short synopsis of the infraction, and the rank and service of the officer. There are some senior civilian officials in the military and intelligence communities included in the figures.
The inspector general does not have comparable data on senior officer misconduct prior to 2013, according to Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the inspector general.
“There was no trend analysis that I have seen as general counsel for the Army, undersecretary of the Army or as undersecretary for personnel and readiness,” said Brad Carson who held those top posts in the Army and in the office of the Defense secretary.
Some senior Air Force officers did not want to cooperate with the effort, said James, the former Air Force secretary, because they considered it “unfair targeting when it wasn’t an enormous problem.”
“We are not changing the climate through transparency and accountability,” said Gillibrand, who has advocated removing commander’s discretion for deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and giving it to career military prosecutors. “Commanders are not doing their part to end this climate of sexual harassment and sexual assault and devaluing women.”
A breed apart
Don Christensen, former top prosecutor for the Air Force and president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, believes that the senior officer class has become a class apart with its own rules and little accountability.
“They’re more nobility than they are just average American citizens,” said Christensen, who retired as a colonel. “They start to feel above the law. They feel like royalty vs. an officer dedicated to the country.”
Army Maj. Gen. Wayne Grigsby, relieved of command last year from the Big Red One, the Army’s legendary 1st Infantry Division, lost his job because he’d grown too close to a junior officer on his staff and lost the confidence of his commanders. He was demoted to one star and forced to retire this summer.
One of Grigsby’s enlisted aides told a superior how she knew Grigsby had been sleeping in somebody else’s bed. “The enlisted aide told him that she believed Maj. Gen. Grigsby did not sleep in his house, because the bed was made, and that was something Maj. Gen. Grigsby did not do,” according to an investigative report.
Climb higher in the ranks and the personal staff can grow. And generals and admirals are free to hire attractive young aides, said a retired two-star officer whose employer will not allow him to be identified. They can begin to believe that they’re special, untouchable.
Take Grigsby, for example. His chief of staff and command sergeant major warned him about his too-close relationship with a young captain on his staff. “Rather than terminate the relationship, Maj. Gen. Grigsby took actions that his staff described as sneaky and covert, indicating that he wanted the relationship to continue, regardless of the consequences.”
That attitude is common among generals and admirals, said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and fellow at the Service Women’s Action Network, a non-profit advocacy group for women in the military.
“The traits that make somebody a good, aggressive leader — the get-out-there-and-run-into-no-man’s-land-from-your-trench kind of guy — is a certain personality trait,” she said. Some of the bad apples out there think they can beat the system because they had so far. Nobody ever caught them. For a few of them, there might be some hubris.”
These same leaders don’t want to pass judgment on each other because they have known each other for decades in which their careers often intersected, she said.
Consequences often are more dire for lower-ranking troops than for generals and admirals, said Christensen, the former Air Force prosecutor. The phenomenon even has its own term in the military: Different spanks for different ranks.
“The everyday troop is court-martialed for what a general officer is given a slap on the hand for,” Christensen said.
Carson, the former top civilian official in the Army and Pentagon, was a bit more charitable, saying senior leaders in every profession prefer to keep the discipline discreet and in-house. “No one likes to call in a strike on their own position,” he said.
Combat stress. Or succumb to it.
Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military has been on a war footing, with some troops returning again and again to combat.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a soldier with more time on battlefields since that time — and before — than Grigsby. An infantryman and graduate of the Army’s elite Ranger school, he led a company of soldiers in the first Gulf War. He would go on to deploy three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and commanded the key task force on the Horn of Africa that conducts counterterror raids.
After eight deployments for a total of 6½ years, “I have been struggling with my family situation for awhile, attempting to balance a military career and be the husband, father, and grandfather I wanted to be and what my family reasonably expected me to be,” Grigsby wrote to the Army vice chief of staff after being demoted one star.
His career and family unraveled on the eve of his fourth deployment to Iraq.
Grigsby, who declined to be interview for this article, concluded his letter, writing that he hoped “others will learn from the pain of my mistakes.” In a hand-written note, he apologized for “letting down” Army leaders.
Repeated deployments and trauma don’t explain or excuse outrageous behavior, said retired Army general Peter Chiarelli, who served as vice chief until 2012. He is now chief executive of One Mind, a non-profit organization that funds research in brain injury research and treatment. But the Pentagon should think twice before sending the same officers again and again into war, he said.
Spare the rod, spoil the general
Christensen, the advocate for victims of sexual assault in the military and former Air Force prosecutor, said the Pentagon has failed troops by going easy on generals and admirals who are allowed to retire, keep their coveted security clearances and take lucrative jobs with defense contractors in retirement.
The only way to stop it, he said, is to punish wayward admirals and generals by taking away their retirement pay and opportunities to work for defense contractors when they leave the military.
Hagel called, again, for a better understanding of the problem before heads roll.
“Is there a deep problem? There obviously was a problem,” he said. “Was it endemic? I don’t think it was.
“That doesn’t discount the seriousness of it,” Hagel said. “If somebody’s getting away with something, that’s going to have a wider effect on the environment.”
If you spare the rod, said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, you’ll spoil the general.
“Naming and shaming is key,” Speier said. “If you really want to create an environment that is going to sanitize this conduct from happening, investigate it, prosecute it and then inform the public.”