Advocates Decry ‘Public Shaming’ of General’s Accuser

Critics call the treatment of Col. Spletstoser during confirmation hearings for Trump’s Joint Chiefs vice chair a setback for efforts to reform the way the military handles sexual assault.

U.S. Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser confers with a colleague as U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his appointment as the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington on July 30.
U.S. Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser confers with a colleague as U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his appointment as the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington on July 30. Win McNamee/Getty Images

After recent progress compelling the U.S. Defense Department to address pervasive problems with the military’s handling of sexual violence, advocates say a major setback occurred with the “public shaming” of a female officer who has accused President Donald Trump’s nominee to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of sexual assault.

During Gen. John Hyten’s confirmation hearing to be the second-highest-ranking U.S. military officer on Tuesday, none of the lawmakers present defended his accuser, Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, who sat silently in the front row. Instead, Republican Sen. Martha McSally, who revealed earlier this year that she was raped during her time in the Air Force, and other prominent officials dismissed her allegations as false and even questioned her mental fitness.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Spletstoser said that the lawmakers’ response “tells every sexual assault survivor, victim, whatever you want to call them, that they need not bother to report it.” 

“They won’t be taken seriously; their own character, despite having a flawless record, will always be questioned; that they will be the ones investigated; that they won’t see justice,” she said. “And hey, in the end, senior officers are allowed to sexually assault people and we will just give them a promotion instead.”

The recent push for reform on the issue makes it all the more striking that no one came to Spletstoser’s defense during the hearing. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, an Army veteran who also publicly discussed her rape in college earlier this year, told Hyten that the facts of the investigation “left me with concerns regarding your judgement, leadership, and fitness” for the job but focused her questioning on Hyten’s handling of previous complaints about Spletstoser’s leadership 

Several prominent female Democratic senators who might have backed Spletstoser did not show up due their presidential campaign schedules. Most notably the absentees included Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York—who has pushed for years to take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command—and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. In a statement, a spokesperson for Gillibrand said she opposes Hyten’s nomination.

“Senator Gillibrand opposes General Hyten’s nomination and believes the Committee shouldn’t be rushing this nomination through today given the disturbing allegations and the concerns about the process in this case,” the spokesperson told Foreign Policy.

But McSally, who like the other members of the committee reviewed Spletstoser’s case, was unequivocal in her assessment: “The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges,” she said. “Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case.” 

Heather Wilson, the former Air Force secretary who directed what she called an “exhaustive” Air Force investigation into the claims, went even further, questioning Spletstoser’s memory of the most egregious alleged incident, which the accuser says happened in December 2017.

“I accept that it is entirely possible that his accuser is a wounded soldier who believes what she is saying is true even if it’s not,” Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The allegations against Hyten, who currently oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal as the head of U.S. Strategic Command, surfaced earlier this month after his nomination hearing was held up by an Air Force investigation into their veracity. Spletstoser, an Army officer who served at Strategic Command with Hyten, maintains that the general repeatedly made unwanted sexual contact with her; the Air Force says it found no evidence to corroborate her claims.

McSally’s backing signals that Hyten will likely be confirmed in short notice. But in the long term, advocates say the treatment of the allegations, both internally by the Pentagon and publicly by lawmakers, throws into sharp relief the still pervasive problem of sexual assault in the armed forces despite recent efforts to reform the way the military adjudicates such claims.

“For years the military has claimed they want victims to come forward and that when they do they will be treated with dignity. Col. Spletstoser did exactly what they have claimed they want victims to do. She reported,” said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, the president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders and a former Air Force chief prosecutor. “This public shaming of a victim is a major setback. By their words, the military and the senators that support Hyten are sending a clear message that a victim is better off staying silent.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon official, slammed lawmakers’ response to the allegations, saying the hearing shows the Senate Armed Services Committee is “incapable of lending their voice to this query.”

“Armchair diagnoses of mental health challenges for a sexual assault accuser are so cliche a Lifetime movie would reject them as over the top,” said DeJonge Schulman, who now researches national security and defense reform at the Center for a New American Security. “This hearing is sickening.”

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Spletstoser pushed back against Hyten’s insistence of his innocence, as well as questions about her mental state. She stressed her “unblemished” 28-year career in the Army, during which Hyten himself gave her stellar reviews before the December 2017 incident. After that event, Spletstoser was removed from command following a review of her “toxic” leadership style.

 Spletstoser said she wants to testify before the Senate in an open hearing or in private so lawmakers can hear the full story. She also said she would support the release of the full, unredacted report of the Air Force investigation, but she doubts the military will release it.

“Good luck with that,” she said.

In recent years, there has been a bipartisan push to address the problem of how the military justice system investigates and prosecutes accusations of sexual assault. In 2013, Gillibrand proposed groundbreaking legislation that would have taken such cases outside of the military’s chain of command. The proposal would have given military prosecutors, rather than accusers’ commanders, the power to decide which cases move forward to a trial. 

Gillibrand’s bill failed, but in the years since, lawmakers have forced changes to the process, including ending the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases, making retaliation against victims a crime, and requiring a dismissal or dishonorable discharge of anyone convicted of sexual assault or rape.

But the most recent data suggests these measures are not enough. The Pentagon’s annual report on sexual assault in the military estimated there were 20,500 instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in fiscal year 2018, an increase of 38 percent from the previous survey in 2016. While these results are not the worst—rates were higher in both the 2006 and 2012 surveys—they provide ammunition to advocates of taking these allegations outside the military chain of command.

After McSally disclosed her rape by a superior officer in March, she introduced a bill to help combat sexual assault and harassment in the military. The proposal would allow commanders to be involved in sexual assault investigations and prosecutions but involve the military’s judicial arm sooner.

Gillibrand sent Secretary of Defense Mark Esper a letter on July 12 raising “grave concerns” with the investigation into the allegations against Hyten, which she said “proceeded exceedingly quickly for such criminal inquiries.” She also raised concerns about the fact that the officer who oversaw the case, Air Force Gen. James Holmes, the commander of Air Combat Command, has “neither the necessary distance from the accused nor the seniority to properly carry out disposition responsibilities.” Holmes is several years junior to Hyten, and the two are among only about a dozen Air Force four-star generals.

“I believe DoD leadership has made an error that can lead to a biased and unfair case disposition, or a perception that a case determination would be made preferentially in favor of General Hyten, undermining the sense of justice among the military and civilian members of the Department,” Gillibrand wrote. 

Gillibrand asked for Hyten’s confirmation to be delayed until Esper had conducted a further review of the case—a request that was denied.

Tuesday’s hearing highlights how far congressional oversight of this issue has fallen in creating incentives for the Defense Department to reform, said one former Pentagon official. The hearing “was more like a partisan support of a nominee than a careful reckoning” about a complex issue.

“This says if you’re senior and important enough then the process of having a credible investigation on allegations of sexual violence doesn’t matter,” the former official said. Further, “there appear to be career and reputation consequences to reporting.”

Update, July 31, 2019: This article has been updated to include additional information about Air Force Col. Don Christensen’s experience. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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