The Pentagon was hammered in the battle of the sexes on Thursday for ignoring the adultery of a four-star general who remains in the running as a candidate for the top post in the military.
Women’s groups, House members and a female Air Force lieutenant who faces 10 years in jail over her own affair with a married major heaped scorn on Defense Secretary William Cohen’s decision to give a pass to Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston.
Ralston, 53, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a statement admitting an affair with a civilian 13 years ago and taking “full responsibility for my conduct.” He also thanked Cohen for his confidence in “my ability to further serve this nation.”
Cohen said Ralston would not be punished and remains a candidate to succeed retiring Army Gen. John Shalikashvili as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He said he will make a recommendation to President Clinton, possibly next week.
“I am satisfied that Gen. Ralston’s conduct was neither prejudicial to good order and discipline nor discrediting to the armed forces.”
Ralston has a reputation for coming down hard on adultery by his own subordinates. In 1995, Ralston relieved Lt. Gen. Thomas Griffith of his command of the 12th Air Force, demoted him to major general and forced him to retire for having an extramarital affair.
A Pentagon spokesman said that adultery under military law does not rise to the level of a punishable offense unless it affects “good order and discipline.”
The Ralston flap emerged as the Army confirmed that its top enlisted man, Gene McKinney, sergeant major of the Army, has asked to retire in lieu of facing multiple charges of sexual misconduct.
Army sources said McKinney had been invited to request retirement with the approval of Secretary of the Army Togo West.
Cohen’s critics said his decision in the Ralston case strengthens the public impression that the military has a double standard on discipline when rank and gender are involved.
They contrasted Ralston’s treatment with that of Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn, the first woman to fly a B-52 bomber. She took a general discharge rather than face a court-martial for disobeying orders involving her own adulterous affair.
“Like Alice in Wonderland, Secretary Cohen seems to have fallen through the looking glass here,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
She and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., urged Cohen to upgrade Flinn’s discharge to honorable and, “if not, explain to us the difference between the misconduct of Gen. Ralston and Lt. Flinn.”
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., backed Cohen’s decision. He said Ralston’s distinguished career and record as a combat fighter-pilot in Vietnam count for more “than does an allegation of a single mistake in his personal life.”
In one of the many ironies growing out of the military sex scandals, McCain and Sens. Chuck Robb, D-Va., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. - all of whom have had their own well-publicized marital problems - would sit in judgment on Ralston’s potential nomination to the Joint Chiefs post as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Air Force Lt. Crista Davis, who faces court-martial charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer” involving her own adulterous affair, said she is shocked at Ralston’s treatment.
“They destroyed Kelly Flinn’s career and they wanted to destroy her life, and now they’re doing the same thing to me,” Davis said. “It’s so typical.”