Judge Rules Sexual Assault Case Against Vice-Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff May Proceed

Judge Rules Sexual Assault Case Against Vice-Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff May Proceed

A federal judge ruled on October 22 that a sexual assault case against Air Force General John E. Hyten may proceed. Hyten had claimed he was immune to such civil prosecution as a member of the military. As the nation’s second-highest-ranking military officer, it is believed Hyten is the highest-ranking member of the military ever to face sexual assault charges.

He denies the allegations. Hyten, 61 and married, is accused of sexual assault by Army Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser, 52. The Colonel says she had a moral responsibility to come forward, as she could not live with herself if this happened to someone else. 

The Air Force declined to pursue the sexual assault allegations after conducting an investigation. Spletstoser then filed her civil suit. 

Hyten had claimed he could not be sued in civil court as a military officer under the Feres Doctrine. This doctrine prevents military members or their family from suing the military if they are permanently disabled or killed due to negligence. Judge Michael Fitzgerald of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California stated in his ruling it was inconceivable that Hyten’s “military duties would require him to sexually assault Plaintiff, or that such an assault would advance any conceivable military objective.” 

A Knock on the Hotel Room Door

Spletstorer alleges that after attending the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2017 in California with Hyten, her boss, and at the time commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, she heard a knock on the door that night in her hotel room. It was Hyten, who said he wanted to speak with her.

Once inside, he sat down on the bed and asked her to sit beside him, according to Spletstorer. He then reached for her hand. She quickly stood up, as did Hyten. He then pulled her to him and kissed her. While kissing her, he pressed himself against her and ejaculated. The semen got on both of their pants. 

At the time, Hyten oversaw the nuclear arsenal of this country. 

The incident was a culmination of Hyten’s behavior toward Spletstorer over the course of 2017. She alleges the General tried to touch her inappropriately and kiss her while on trips or in her office. She rebuffed him and even threatened to inform his wife. 

Who Was I Going to Report It To?

After the hotel room episode, Spletstorer said Hyten became apologetic and asked her if she planned to report him. She says she literally did not know who she would report a sexual assault by such a high-ranking officer. “Who was I going to report it to? [Then Defense] Secretary Mattis? Really?” 

A Very Dangerous Message

In July 2019, Spletstorer testified before a Senate committee during Hyten’s confirmation hearings that promoting him would send “a very dangerous message to sexual assault victims.” She said that confirming Hyten would keep any other sexual assault victims of high-ranking officers from coming forward. She noted the military’s already abysmal record on the issue of sexual assault. 

Senator Martha McSally, R-AZ, who was herself the victim of sexual assault while in the military, said that while sexual assault happens in the military, it did not happen in this case.  

Ethics Above Reproach

In performance reviews, Hyten consistently praised Spletstorer. He referred to her as an “exceptionally competent and committed leader with the highest level of character,” whose ethics were “above reproach.”

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