Hesterman

Not long ago, Lt. Gen. John Hesterman was on the Air Force’s “fast-track” to the very top. Not just the regular fast-track, by which many officers play the game adeptly and position themselves favorably to squeeze into the elite general officer ranks, but the “special handling” track, with assignments hand-massaged by key sponsors actively positioning him for the national-level big time.

Hesterman’s bio reads like a perfect pedigree for Chief of Staff … with an ideal mix of operational, staff, command, school, and combat experiences. He was an O-5 in less than fourteen years, did a one-year touch-and-go as commander of premier fighter squadron, and spent just 21 months as a 2-star before being promoted again. His record is peppered with extraordinary opportunities and perfect assignment timing — clues that powerful actors were working on his behalf.

But Hesterman’s bio will now carry an abrupt and ignominious conclusion, causing many to wonder whether he was moved along faster than his character could sustain. In a recent investigation report first featured in Air Force Times, Hesterman was found culpable by the Air Force Inspector General (IG) of engaging in an unprofessional relationship with the wife of a former subordinate.

The relationship apparently went on for years, its details surfacing in divorce proceedings after Hesterman’s paramour saw her marriage dissolve. Although it’s not clear when the illicit partnership began, the IG found it was ongoing during Hesterman’s time as a 2-star, with sexually suggestive and intimate emails demonstrating something more than a normal relationship between two officers not married to one another.

According to sources familiar with the situation and the unredacted version of the IG report, Hesterman’s counterpart was Col. Adrienne Pederson, a reservist and member of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Hesterman became acquainted with Pederson during his stint in command of the 494th Fighter Squadron in 1997-98, during which time he commanded her husband, Shawn “Norm” Pederson, at the time an F-15E pilot.

Norm would later become a Thunderbird and rise to the rank of Colonel himself before retiring from the Air Force with severe medical problems. A burst aneurysm left him severely disabled, and his struggle to recover and regain basic functionality continues to this day. I reported last year on the extraordinary response of his wingmen and family to Norm’s sudden illness.

Many in his family and among his friend network believe the stress and trauma of a bitter divorce — triggered by his wife’s dalliance with Hesterman but almost certainly a function of a much larger and longer story appropriately obscured from public view — contributed significantly to his catastrophic decline in health. 

It’s not clear why the IG elected to focus purely on Hesterman’s role in the affair, or whether any disciplinary action will be take against Pederson. Some believe such action would be appropriate given evidence the relationship compromised fairness, with Hesterman using his power and influence to enhance her career.

This is a particularly disturbing finding that cuts to the core of why the Air Force has rules against certain relationships, even if they are consensual and would be lawful (if not decent or honorable) beyond a military context. When someone gets a promotion, assignment, or some other perk because of who s/he knows or is intimate with, the entire meritocracy is compromised, hemorrhaging system legitimacy. This is corrosive to morale.

Consider the following excerpt from the IG report (entire report included at the bottom):

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By the standard currently embraced across the force, this is particularly egregious conduct. Recall that over the past year, we’ve reported on several cases of officers condemned and dismissed from the service for engaging in Unprofessional Relationships (UPR), often heavily fined, imprisoned, and stripped of their stripes or commissions. We’ve also chronicled cases of officers charred by severe disciplinary actions for merely failing to act on rumors of UPRs. Given the punishments many of those hapless targets received, it’ll be interesting to note what happens next in the Hesterman case. Given the role of OSI in setting the table for many of those actions, it’ll be interesting to note whether Pederson’s complicity leads to formal consequences.

As a minimum, it seems reasonable to recommend the following:

  1. Article 15 Punishment for Hesterman. There are clear violations here, and they’re severe enough to pursue criminal charges. While that’s unlikely and probably not in the service’s best interests, the service cannot abide a double standard that allows its senior members to retire unscathed after committing offenses that have led to prison sentences and professional ruin for their juniors. Punishment should come not from the Vice Chief of Staff, but from Gen. Welsh himself. This would send the strongest possible signal of deterrence and accountability. It would demonstrate Welsh is capable of being more than a smiling stump speaker and modernization salesman … that he can perform as a full-fledged service chief in the traditional mold — one who understands that disciplining the general officer corps falls to him, especially when the officer implicated touched the careers of so many.
  2. Grade Determination. If the IG report is accurate, Hesterman did not serve honorably as a Major General. Accordingly, he should be retired at no higher than the 1-star level — or lower if the facts demonstrate it appropriate. Generals need to know that at no point do they become immune from the rules. When they bring dishonor upon a rank they hold, they should not be permitted to carry that rank into retirement after tarnishing it for all.
  3. Damage Assessment. Did Hesterman intervene directly and meaningfully in Pederson’s career? If so, are there officers in the service who made out better or worse than fairness or merit would have dictated? This must be sorted out. And since the IG report demonstrates that Hesterman’s moral compass was prone to wandering, his other interventions on behalf of other officers should be examined as well. This doesn’t mean those he helped along should automatically suffer from his involvement or have their advantages rolled back … but whether officers in his considerable sphere of influence received fair systemic outcomes is now a fair question. Addressing it is the only way to contain the damage caused by this debacle.
  4. Senior Leader Ethics Review. The Air Force has several senior leaders under investigation for assaulting and abusing subordinates. Others have fired subordinates without cause, conducted witch hunts using misappropriated law enforcement power, trumped up false charges against disfavored airmen, obscured key truths about institutional neglect and organizational rot, and bullied subordinates by marking them as traitors for daring to disagree with the company line. Enough. Gen. Welsh needs to awaken from his malaise of denial and get serious about senior leader misconduct. If he won’t take the lead, Secretary James should take the controls and do it herself. The Air Force is more important than one general’s discomfort with the unpleasant aspects of his job.

The Air Force has to do better on discipline, and nothing will mortally wound morale and institutional health more quickly than the perception of a double standard. It wasn’t long ago that Gen. Welsh declined to investigate after learning one his graduated wing commanders was making after-hours personal calls to a Lieutenant he previously disciplined. He’s also declined to comment or involve himself in cases of intimidation and abuse of power — actions that would have gotten lower ranking airmen harshly disciplined.

If ever there has a been an opportune moment for Welsh to show that he personally won’t tolerate a double standard, and that generals live by the same rules as everyone else, this is it.

The full IG report:

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