WASHINGTON — The Army has launched an investigation of the major general in charge of its forces in Africa for sending dozens of messages, some of them suggestive, to the wife of an enlisted soldier under his command, USA TODAY has learned.
The Facebook messages sent by Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington range from flattering to flirty and suggestive and include a request to the woman that she delete them. Harrington is the two-star in charge of U.S. Army Africa and is based in Italy. The woman was born in Europe and is married to an American soldier.
An expert on military law who reviewed the texts said they seem in clear violation of military law, including conduct unbecoming an officer.
“With all the attention we have paid to improper relationships in the military, he just didn’t care,” said Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and president of Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military. “He should lose his command over this. It’s probably time for him to retire.”
Harrington’s name is the latest to be added to the growing list of generals and admirals mired in scandal. Among them are top officers found to have been carousing at strip clubs, swinging with multiple partners and frequenting prostitutes in Asia.
The Army Inspector General initiated its probe after USA TODAY revealed a series of messages Harrington wrote this spring.
“As it is under investigation, as a matter of practice, I cannot provide any additional details on that at this time,” said Col. Pat Seiber, an Army spokesman. Likewise, Lt. Col. Armando Hernandez, a spokesman for U.S. Army Africa, said Harrington would not comment while he is the focus of the investigation.
The woman who received the messages — who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation against her husband — told USA TODAY the texting began as friendly and related to business. She said she had met Harrington at the gym. She became concerned with the texts, she said, after Harrington’s messages became suggestive. The relationship did not become physical.
Harrington is married, and adultery is a violation of military law.
The messages, many sent late at night, veer from the mundane to the personal. Harrington oversees the Army’s activities in Africa from a post in northern Italy. In some texts, he complained about travel and getting sick on local food.
In others, he doted on the woman’s appearance, referring to her as “HOTTIE,” and “looking good for sure.” In another series he wrote: "You seem to have a great modeling resume! Truly! Though I hadn’t noticed! Where is your hubby tonight? Work?”
When she replied that she’d fought with her husband, and that he was asleep, Harrington responded: “I’m sorry! Make up se…x is fun”
Harrington suggested “U can be my nurse,” and added, “I’d enjoy being in a tent with U.”
Of particular concern to investigators, Christensen said, will be texts in which Harrington acknowledged that their relationship is inappropriate, others in which he suggested the two could meet and finally his request that she delete their online chats.
In one exchange, Harrington noted that, “I don’t think your husband would be happy if he knew you chatted with another man.” In another, he said “A married man giving a gift to another man’s wife.” After her reply about “friendly” gifts, he wrote: “I’d enjoy giving u a gift one day.”
Harrington also urged her at times to erase records of their chats.
"I hope u delete this exchange!" he wrote at one point. At another: "Why not delete after communicating?"
Covering up the messages indicates Harrington knew he'd crossed lines, Christensen said.
"By asking her to delete the exchanges, he seems to know it wasn’t appropriate to be involved with the wife of an enlisted man in his command," Christensen said.
Harrington's case is less spectacular than that of Maj. Gen. David Haight, the "swinging general" who lost his job and three ranks when his secret life was revealed. Or that of Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis, the former top aide to then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, whose strip club visits while on official travel earned him censure. Nor does it rise to the level of Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, who was indicted by federal authorities in a wide-ranging Navy bribery scandal in which he was found to have swilled expensive champagne and indulged in prostitutes, according to a federal indictment.
The texts and investigation are black marks for one of the Army's rising stars. A decorated combat veteran, Harrington had been a top aide to Gen. Martin Dempsey when Dempsey was Army chief of staff, and again when Dempsey became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Christensen said Harrington's actions nonetheless strike at the heart of the good order and discipline that the military prides itself on. Moreover, Harrington has the authority to order cases to go to court martial, including those involving sexual assault and harassment.
"The message he's sending is that the rules don’t apply to him," Christensen said. "It erodes confidence in the junior officers and enlisted soldiers who serve under him. It's a message that this guy thinks he's above the law."