Senior US officer retires over adultery allegations

Concern is rising that the issue will cut a swathe through America's military
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As a new attitude of "zero tolerance" towards sexual misdemeanours sweeps the US military, the commander of a Maryland army training centre that has seen a spate of sexual assault cases is to retire early after admitting to an extra-marital affair. Major-General John Longhouser, a graduate of the elite West Point military academy, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran and a married man, will retire as head of the Aberdeen Proving Ground with reduced pension privileges after his affair was reported to a military hot-line.

The disclosure about Gen Longhouser comes barely a week after the resignation from the US air force of Kelly Flinn, the first female B-52 bomber pilot, who narrowly avoided court martial for adultery and disobedience. Ms Flinn's lawyer had claimed that the military was guilty of double standards and said he had names of senior officers whose adultery had gone unpunished.

The retirement of the commander is the latest sign that a toughening of discipline relating to sexual relations in the military could cause the early departure of some very senior officers. At the end of last week, just as 26 year old Ms Flinn was packing her belongings to leave the air force for good, three separate cases came to light involving senior members of the US armed forces.

One concerns the top legal officer of the US armed forces, William Coleman; the second - a two-star Admiral, R.M. Mitchell, who supervises the navy's supply system: both are accused of harassing female subordinates. The third is that of Brigadier-General Stephen Xenakis, head of army medical operations in the south-east command, who is accused of an improper relationship with a civilian nurse. Both Mr Coleman and Admiral Mitchell have denied the accusations against them, but have been forbidden to comment until the investigations are complete. Their feelings were summed up by Mr Coleman who said: "I'm not at liberty to comment; I'd love to, though."

The case of Kelly Flinn, who admitted having an affair with a married civilian, lying about it and disobeying an order to break it off, became a national cause celebre and brought claims that men in the forces tended to be punished less severely than women, if at all, for sexual dalliances, while senior officers tended to be treated more leniently still.

The chief of staff of the air force, in remarks that were widely endorsed, denied that she had been severely treated, saying that it was unthinkable to have a pilot who disobeyed orders flying a plane capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

After Ms Flinn agreed to accept a general discharge in lieu of court martial, however, newspaper columns and radio talkshows were immediately filled with complaints about individuals, including high-ranking officers - unnamed - whose sexual escapades had gone unremarked and unpunished.

The current mood in the military is such that every allegation of sexual misconduct of whatever kind is likely to be followed up, and the result risks cutting a swathe through the US officer corps. As one Penatagon official was quoted as saying in relation to the retirement of Gen Longhouser: "Where does this end? It's terrible that it's come to the point where a distinguished soldier like Gen Longhouser has his career ended by something like this... Does this make any sense?"