Sex with subordinate, inappropriate relationships cost fired warfare center commander two stars

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The two-star general who was fired from command of the Air Force Warfare Center in 2019 has retired as a colonel after an investigation found he had a sexual relationship with a female subordinate.

Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten also engaged in inappropriate personal relationships with two other women over a decade, the inspector general investigation found.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said that Gersten received an Article 15 punishment, and retired Jan. 1 at a reduced rank.

Former Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Holmes relieved Gersten of command in person at the Air Force’s Corona meeting of top generals at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on June 2, 2019. Afterwards, Gersten admitted the relationship, the report said. When he returned to the Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, five days later to say goodbye to senior staff, he again acknowledged, “I made a mistake.”

According to the IG investigation, which was completed in September 2019 and released to Air Force Times on Friday, Gersten improperly had sex with a female subordinate officer in 2018, while he was still married.

While Gersten and his then-wife were living apart and in the process of separating, they were still married during several months of Gersten’s relationship with his girlfriend, which violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s prohibition against adultery.

Though they tried to keep this relationship secret, it soon became common knowledge at Nellis — and then the rumors spread through the Air Force and Defense Department, the report said.

“Maj. Gen. Gersten’s notoriety for being the general officer who slept with his [redacted] brought discredit upon the Air Force,” the report said.

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Between October 2010 and June 2019, Gersten engaged in inappropriate relationships with several women, the IG found, and intended “to act indecorously and indecently” with them. Gersten was married during most of that period, the IG said.

Witnesses described Gersten as “personable, charming, sensitive to women’s issues, and one who frequently hugged or patted subordinates about the shoulders,” the report said.

But his marital status was uncertain and said to be a “touchy subject” during his tenure as commander of the Warfare Center, which began in July 2017, the report said. He and his wife divorced in December 2018.

The female officer told other staff at the Warfare Center, family members and a local friend about her relationship with Gersten, the report said, and later told the Office of Special Investigations about their relationship in detail.

She told investigators that her relationship with Gersten became flirtatious in May 2018. She told investigators she wanted their relationship to go further, but understood it could not. Still, she stressed that the relationship was consensual and positive.

Their sexual relationship began in a distinguished visitor suite at Nellis one evening in July 2018. Following a visit from the commander of the Columbian air force, she texted him “DV One. Cum on over.” They had multiple more encounters in his on-base quarters and her off-base home, among other locations.

Gersten and the female officer who was his girlfriend also texted each other nude and partially nude photographs of themselves. They also sent multiple flirtatious text messages planning their encounters.

But witnesses told investigators that it became increasingly obvious that something was going on between them, and rumors spread about their “sexting.” One witness observed the sexting and said his girlfriend used code words to describe Gersten, such as “big daddy,” and saw some of the nude and revealing images exchanged.

Another witness reported seeing the two flirting, and once also saw the woman — while intoxicated during an event hosted at Gersten’s home — make a sexually suggestive remark to Gersten. The witness warned Gersten afterwards.

Their relationship began to degrade good order and discipline at the Warfare Center, the report said. Before he arrived at the Warfare Center, the female officer was “thriving and eager to learn,” witnesses said.

But after their relationship started, witnesses said her performance took a nosedive. She began acting “buddy-buddy” with colonels who outranked her, as if they were peers, witnesses said, and her professionalism went from “lackadaisical to non-existent.” She began acting aggressively to the staff and behaved as if she had more authority than she actually did.

One witness reported losing respect for Gersten after discovering he was visiting the female officer’s apartment, and believed he took advantage of her. This hurt Gersten’s ability to lead, the report said. Another witness said Gersten almost treated his girlfriend “like a daughter” and would never get mad at her.

In March 2019, the woman’s home was egged the same day someone left a note saying “We know” on Gersten’s vehicle while it was parked at her apartment complex. An unidentified witness expressed concern to OSI that Gersten was at risk of blackmail over the relationship.

“How does a general officer not know that’s wrong?” said a witness who had respected Gersten and was taken aback when learning of the relationship. “How do you go ahead and do that and not expect to be looked down upon as a leader? … Are the rules different for the general officer as it is for us, because if that would’ve been me, I would’ve been crushed as a commander.”

Their relationship ended after Gersten was fired.

Gersten was a 1989 Air Force Academy graduate who flew the F-16 Falcon, MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, and other aircraft. He has more than 2,800 flight hours, including 400 in combat over Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten addresses ceremony attendees after taking command of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center on July 13, 2017, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Gersten was relieved of command June 2, 2019, due to allegations of an unprofessional relationship. (SrA Joshua Kleinholz/Air Force)

Gersten also engaged in inappropriate relationships with two other civilian women who worked for the Defense Department while he was still married, the report said.

One woman’s ex-husband told investigators he first saw Gersten with his ex-wife around 2008, while stationed at Camp Smith, Hawaii. He saw him give his then-wife a big hug and noted that they seemed very familiar. Soon afterwards, he said, she grew distant from him, though he first chalked it up to the requirements of her new job.

But by fall 2011, he noticed something wasn’t right in his relationship. His then-wife, who was by then at the Pentagon, began to go into another room to take phone calls and acted “cagey.” He checked his then-wife’s phone records and saw frequent calls from Gersten in the middle of the night. By then, Gersten was assigned to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

“There was always some half-story” to explain the calls from Gersten, he said.

When he found out his wife once met Gersten in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, she claimed it was for work — even though they didn’t work together anymore.

“What married man and married woman … meet … at a hotel room and order pizza to discuss business?” the man told investigators. “How stupid am I?”

They went to marriage counseling for several months to try to salvage their relationship. But after every session, the ex-husband said, his ex-wife would immediately call Gersten. He felt Gersten was interfering in their marriage all the time they were in counseling.

One day, he said, he showed his then-wife a picture of Gersten and asked if she was seeing him.

“She pretty much went white as a ghost and clammed up,” the man told investigators. She asked him for a divorce the next day.

The report said that Gersten also engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a second civilian woman between 2010 and 2015.

“Maj. Gen. Gersten’s acts are dishonoring and disgracing to him personally,” the IG wrote about the inappropriate relationships, and concluded his conduct was unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

Gersten declined to speak with investigators. Through his counsel, he admitted to the inappropriate relationship with the female officer, though he denied relationships with the two civilian women.

About

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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