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Social Change Leads To Healthy Debate In U.S. Military, Gen. Hyten Says


Leaders in the U.S. military like to say that troops reflect the country. So what happens when the country faces convulsive social change? It's part of General John Hyten's job to know. He's the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a conversation with Steve Inskeep, General Hyten took questions on the military's tensions over both sexual misconduct and racism.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Is this an unsettled time within the ranks?

JOHN HYTEN: It is a little unsettled, but it is not as unsettled as it was in previous times. If you remember, the military in 1992 around the Rodney King riots, it was much, much more unsettled. It's actually a healthy debate that's going on right now in the military. Folks are very open in discussing what they believe, what the issues are with me, as the vice chairman, with the chairman, with the secretary of defense. So I don't think it's bad, but you have to say that it's unsettled because people are upset and rightly so. They're upset across the country, and our military represents the country.

INSKEEP: We have followed the debate over renaming bases that are named in honor of Confederate military figures. We have covered cadets at West Point who want changes to Confederate symbols and more anti-racism training there at West Point. Are these the kinds of issues that people are bringing to you?

HYTEN: So it's interesting because I asked that question directly. I asked soldiers who've been stationed at Fort Bragg, is that high on your list of things to do? And some of them say, yes, I would like to see those name changes. But for the most part, the answer to me is, well, that would be a good symbol, but I would really like to see more meaningful change. When they look at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they see all old white males. For whatever reason, we are not building the leaders that we need to build a diverse population in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now, on August 6, that will change. And a good friend of mine, General C.Q. Brown, will become chief of staff of the Air Force. That's going to be a great day. And when that happens, we will have an African American on Joint Chiefs of Staff. But we haven't had an African American on the Joint Chiefs of Staff since Colin Powell in 1993. That's not right.

INSKEEP: I want to investigate those three words - for whatever reason. You are, by no means, the only senior manager or senior executive trying to figure out what the reasons are and what practically can be done about it. Do you feel that you know?

HYTEN: I have the indications, and one of the big indications are, if you look at the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the one thing that we all have in common is we all became operators in the United States military, whether that's an Air Force pilot, an Army infantry guy, an Army aviator, a Naval surface warfare officer. And because of that, we're able to grow up and to be selected for senior operational positions. That's who becomes members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When you look at our numbers, minorities in those specific career fields are very small. So that means we have to go and aggressively recruit into those career fields.

Our recruiting is based on numbers. And if you have a successful recruiter, he knows exactly where to go to recruit the people to make his or her numbers. And they do it over and over again. But that means they go to the same population to recruit year after year after year. And if you want to actually change that, you have to go to different areas of the country and different schools and different areas to pull a different population in.

INSKEEP: I also want to ask about the backdrop of a case at Fort Hood in Texas where a soldier was killed, specialist Vanessa Guillen. She was murdered. There are also, according to investigators, allegations of sexual harassment around her case. It's still being investigated, but this is definite. There is a Department of Defense report saying that reported sexual assault in the military is up 3% this year, and it's been going up pretty steadily for several years in a row. What's going wrong?

HYTEN: I think we have a problem with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. The interesting thing is is that when we've looked out across it, we've implemented - we, the leadership of the military, have implemented program after program that has been vetted with the nation's experts to try to get after this problem and change it. And I went and hired an expert from outside the military that has no background with the Pentagon but has a significant background in this area to come in and put a fresh set of eyes on what we're doing, how we're doing it and to point out areas where she thinks that we can make significant improvements or adjustments.

INSKEEP: I'm obliged to ask because it was such a public incident - you, when you were on the way to being confirmed to this job, were publicly accused. You were not charged. And the Senate approved your nomination after the accusation. But nevertheless, you went through that experience. Has that experience in any way affected the way you approach this problem?

HYTEN: So it has. I mean, my fundamental beliefs in our structure haven't changed. The truth matters. The truth is important. The truth will come out. And our legal process will encourage and make the truth come out. I absolutely believe that. But as I looked forward into this job coming out of that experience, my daughter actually pointed it out to me when she said, you know, you basically have a fundamental choice that you can make. You can go one way or the other.

When you've had those kind of accusations made against you and you come out of it, you can put your head down and pretend like it never happened and just get on with life and nobody will look at you sideways and think that that's inappropriate, or because of what you've experienced and the fact that you know that this problem is real, you can make an effort to try to make a difference. And so when your daughter says something like that to you, you really only have one choice, and that's try to make a difference, which is why I went to the chairman and why we've hired somebody from the outside to come in. We're working to make this problem better. And we have to get after it a different way.

INSKEEP: General John Hyten, thank you very much for the time.

HYTEN: Thank you very much for your time. I enjoyed the conversation very much.


MARTIN: That was Steve's conversation with the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although he was confirmed by the Senate, General Hyten is still facing a lawsuit over the accusations made by an Army colonel, Kathy Spletstoser, who accused him of multiple sexual advances and is pursuing the case in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "ASCEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.