Senate Confirms Air Force Gen. Hyten as Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

After a months-long inquiry into sexual assault allegations that surfaced this summer, the Senate on Thursday confirmed Air Force Gen. John Hyten to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The Senate voted 75-22 in favor of Hyten, who is currently head of Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

While he was nominated for the position in April, the confirmation process was slowed after lawmakers in July were briefed on complaints of "an unprofessional relationship" and "abusive sexual contact" made against Hyten by Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was a resounding "no" vote Thursday. She was the only Republican to oppose the confirmation despite the fact that the Air Force could not corroborate an unprofessional relationship existed between the general and Spletstoser, who was previously director of his Commander's Action Group, an advisory position.

Related: Air Force Releases Report Showing It Found No Evidence of Sexual Misconduct by Hyten

In the midst of the accusations, STRATCOM conducted its own investigation into allegations from Spletstoser's subordinates that she was creating a hostile work environment.

In a separate internal STRATCOM report released in August, Army Brig. Gen. Gregory Bowen, the investigating officer, found evidence that Spletstoser "bullied some of her subordinates" and that her leadership style "met the definition of 'toxic.'"

During Hyten's Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in July, Ernst, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said that his failure to deal with Spletstoser's leadership shortcomings until others in his command brought them to his attention "left me with concerns about your judgment."

"You could not bring yourself to recognize toxic leadership in your command," she said.

Despite Ernst's opposition during a tense hearing, in which Spletstoser was present in the gallery, the committee advanced his nomination in a 20-7 vote.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, released a statement praising Hyten. "Throughout his nearly 40 years of military service, General Hyten has proven himself to be an accomplished, strategic leader who has served with integrity and honor, and who understands the threats our nation faces and the tools we have to meet and defeat those threats. We need this breadth and depth of knowledge in the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said.

In August, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) released a heavily redacted, 59-page report into unsubstantiated allegations of sexual assault brought against Hyten.

AFOSI conducted more than 50 interviews with witnesses across 13 states between April and June, after Spletstoser detailed her account of repeated assaults.

Spletstoser, who has served in the Army for 28 years, said the first incident happened during a trip to Palo Alto, California, in February 2017. She told investigators that Hyten was in her hotel room reviewing staff work when he allegedly grabbed her hand and positioned it on his groin. Spletstoser reported that, following that incident, more unwanted kissing and touching occurred on separate temporary-duty trips.

The alleged events followed a similar pattern, according to the report, with Spletstoser claiming the inappropriate conduct took place more than once. In another alleged instance during the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, in December 2017, Spletstoser said Hyten knocked on her hotel room door and then "entered uninvited."

Hyten has maintained that Spletstoser is lying and that the events never happened.

In an Op-Ed penned by Spletstoser in Air Force Times last month, she said she had nothing to gain by coming forward because she has been "publicly smeared" by officials attempting to cover up a larger problem -- sexual assault and abuse in the military ranks.

"If Gen. Hyten is promoted to vice chairman, it sends a clear message that military sexual assault will go on unchecked and unaccountable," she wrote. "It tells every general officer who commits a crime that they are above the law, that victims' voices will never be heard, and that justice or accountability will not be served. … Confirming Gen. Hyten for a promotion instead of subjecting him to disciplinary action for misconduct diminishes us all."

In a statement Thursday, Spletstoser expressed disbelief.

“I received a military protective order - the equivalent of a civilian restraining order - against General Hyten in May after he exhibited threatening behavior, including stalking," she said. "It’s hard to imagine another nominee advancing to a floor vote in similar circumstances.” 

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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