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Military Kiss And Tell

Adulterated standards; What's the Pentagon to do when scandal snags the top candidate for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs?

By Mark Thompson

Time cover

(TIME, June 16) -- As Air Force General Joseph Ralston sought to become the nation's No. 2 military officer last year, he pledged to the Senate to be "very candid and forthright" while harnessing "traditional values" to help curb sexual misconduct in the military. But last week Defense Secretary William Cohen released Ralston from that vow, declaring that Ralston's secret, adulterous relationship 13 years ago wouldn't "automatically disqualify" him from becoming the nation's No. 1 military officer this fall.

Or so Cohen thought. The Defense Secretary's assertion, while technically justified under military law, hit Capitol Hill like the heat-seeking missiles Ralston once fired from his F-105 Thunderchief fighter over Vietnam. Some lawmakers immediately charged that Ralston was getting a free ride for behavior that has sunk the careers of several officers and drove First Lieut. Kelly Flinn out of the Air Force last month. "It is very clear that the Pentagon is selectively enforcing its rules on sexual conduct," said Democratic Representative Nita Lowey of New York. "We cannot have one set of rules for the big boys in the Pentagon and another for the rank and file."

Thus no sooner had the nation met Ralston than it prepared to say farewell. Within 24 hours of the disclosure, the Pentagon was distancing itself from the man Cohen had anointed as his choice to replace Army General John Shalikashvili, and was scrambling to find a replacement to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Senate leaves town in August. Worries about a double standard aside, many military experts said the uniformed services desperately need a leader with impeccable credentials in the realm of sexual ethics. In the wake of Cohen's dispensation, even Colin Powell, Shalikashvili's predecessor, privately grumbled to friends that an admitted adulterer is not the kind of leader the Pentagon wants as it investigates charges of sexual misconduct in the U.S. military.

Ralston's tailspin came at the end of an unprecedented fortnight at the Pentagon, where senior officers held their breath amid almost daily charges and revelations about career-ending sexual misconduct. No sooner had the Air Force completed its awkward ejection of Lieut. Flinn than allegations of wrongdoing by officials high and low began landing in the Pentagon's backyard. Army Major General John Longhouser, commanding general of Aberdeen Proving Ground, decided last week to retire after a telephone tipster told Army investigators of an affair Longhouser had had five years ago. Army Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis was relieved of the command of all Army medical operations in the Southeast region two weeks ago because of an apparent "improper relationship" with a civilian nurse who was caring for his ill wife. And last week Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney, the top enlisted soldier in the Army, offered to resign to avoid facing prosecution for sexually harassing female colleagues. What looked like equal time to some feminists was regarded as a witch-hunt by old-timers.

And so Cohen said he had to "draw a line." But that line seemed skewed in favor of a man with four stars on his shoulder and 32 years of service. The Pentagon chief and his aides spent much of last week splitting legal hairs to show why Ralston's transgression wasn't as severe as Flinn's. Whereas Flinn, the Air Force's first female B-52 pilot, lied about her affair and disobeyed an order to stop seeing her boyfriend, Ralston had his fling when the then colonel and his first wife were separated. Because Ralston and his love, a married CIA employee, were attending the Pentagon's National War College at the time, he had no troops under his command. Cohen reasoned that Ralston didn't hurt "good order and discipline" and consequently didn't warrant punishment. The need for top military officers to serve as moral beacons "does not come from notions of perfection," Cohen said, but from possessing "the character to acknowledge our mistakes honestly and then make things right." Perhaps so, but public concern about a possible double standard forced Cohen to launch a fresh review of the matter on Saturday.

Cohen learned of Ralston's affair only last Monday from reporters who had heard of it from Ralston's former war-college classmates. His only discussions with Ralston on the matter have been over the phone (the general was on an official, week-long trip to central Asia). Ralston, 53, told Cohen the affair occurred while he and his first wife, Linda, were separated. She disputes that assertion, claiming the affair continued and led to their 1988 divorce. The next year Ralston married his current wife, who was not involved in the affair.

Ralston thanked Cohen for his support and said he has tried to learn from his mistake. "Our armed forces are composed of human beings that strive to meet the highest standards every day," he said, "but I am acutely aware of human strengths and human frailties." So too is the White House, which in the midst of the Paula Jones battle has no desire to see a few days of televised hearings about adultery or anything else sensational before the Senate. And so the chances of Ralston's securing the nomination seem to be in a fatal dive. The Pentagon is screening a handful of new candidates for the post, examining their backgrounds with a fine-toothed comb for any sexual improprieties. The last-minute choice can only hope he has a history but no past.

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