WASHINGTON — At least 15 generals and admirals have been disciplined since 2010 for ethical lapses and outrageous behavior, a pattern of high-ranking malfeasance so disturbing that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel named a two-star admiral to police the top brass.
Their offenses range from the tawdry to the mundane to the just plain weird, including an admiral fired for passing counterfeit poker chips at a casino to an Air Force general's drunken binge at a nuclear conference in Russia.
Rear Adm. Margaret Klein has been sent into the ethical breach. Klein came to the job in March with this charge from Hagel: "Improve professionalism, moral and ethical decision-making and the traditional values of military service."
"We've been making news for all the wrong reasons," Klein said in an interview.
Some of those reasons:
• Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair cut a plea deal with prosecutors in March over extramarital affairs he had with subordinates, one of whom accused him of sexual assault and threatening to kill her. Sinclair's deal included a $20,000 fine, but he avoided a jail term.
• Army Gen. Kip Ward was demoted in rank by one star in 2012 and ordered to pay more than $80,000 in restitution for using military planes and staff for personal business. Ward had led Africa Command.
• Navy Vice Adm. Tim Giardina was fired from his post after being accused in 2013 of passing counterfeit poker chips at a casino in Iowa. He had been the No. 2 officer at the military command in charge of all U.S. nuclear war-fighting forces.
• Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Carey's drunken binge in Russia, detailed in an inspector general's report, outraged members of the contingent he led there to discuss nuclear security. He offended his Russian counterparts and consorted with women whose motives were suspect, according to the report.
• The "Fat Leonard" Navy scandal broke in 2013, involving prostitutes and cash allegedly provided by a contractor in Southeast Asia for steering ships to ports where he charged exorbitant fees. Leonard Glenn Francis, known as "Fat Leonard," pleaded not guilty to bribing Navy officers for classified information. In all, six Navy officers have been implicated in the scandal.
Ethical lapses aren't limited to the upper ranks. Scandals involving cheating on tests have emerged among junior officers charged with handling the Air Force's nuclear missiles and among Navy enlisted personnel who work on nuclear propulsion systems.
And the bad news keeps coming: Tuesday, the Navy reprimanded the commander of its elite flying team, the Blue Angels, for creating "a hostile work environment through pervasive sexual harassment," according to a Navy report.
Capt. Gregory McWherter was relieved of command for tolerating inappropriate behavior, including the "proliferation of explicit pornography and sexually suggestive images in the cockpits" of the Blue Angels' F-18s, pervasive homophobic humor in the unit and the painting of a blue and gold penis on the roof of winter training facilities in El Centro, Calif.
McWherter, through a Navy spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Klein said in a recent speech that the military routinely goes through a period of introspection after wars. It did so after the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War, she said. In this nearly postwar period, the Pentagon must determine what's causing the ethical crisis and establish programs that encourage better behavior, she said.
"It would be easy to say we're looking now because of misbehaviors, which grab headlines and attention," Klein said. "It's really about leadership."
Military analysts and veterans have theories on potential causes.
"In wartime, the top priority is to win," said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who has consulted with Klein. "A lot of other things you pay a little less attention to."
In 2006, during the Iraq War, nobody at the Pentagon was overly concerned about cigarette smoking among troops, said Feaver, who worked for the Bush administration. Smoking cessation is a peacetime worry.
Repeated deployments most definitely are a wartime worry and may contribute to ethical lapses. John Moore, a retired Army colonel and a private consultant to corporate leaders, said multiple tours of duty take a toll on troops and their families. They also force soldiers to miss professional schools where they can reflect and grow.
"Those that have not had the opportunity to slow down have not had a chance to 'thaw' and then grow for over a decade," Moore said. In some cases, good soldiers leave the Army because of the stress on their families, he said.
In McWherter's case, the Navy speculated that he fell prey to flattery. After taking command in 2011, McWherter "became susceptible to hubris and arrogance, blinding him to the common sense judgments expected of all servicemembers, but especially those entrusted with command," a Navy statement said.
The past decade of war may have fed a sense of entitlement, leading Ward and Sinclair to believe they were above the law and "deserved" the perks of their position, Moore said.
"They began to view their life of sacrifice and service as justification for 'taking a little extra.' " Moore said. "Their egos expanded to a degree that they rose above the law, and then their egos had to be continually fed. That is why a small indiscretion normally grows into consistent abuse."
Programs and policies won't root out bad behavior, Klein said. Sinclair was well aware of the policy against adultery yet committed it several times. Klein said troops must be committed to upholding ethical standards — and calling out misdeeds — associated with the professional military.
Another potential fix: selecting and promoting troops who demonstrate ethical behavior, Klein said. Fitness reports might need to evaluate character, not just the ability to fire a weapon. The Coast Guard, she said, has begun examining character among the people it recruits.
One of the surest fixes, Moore said, is the subordinate who feels empowered enough to call out a superior on an ethical lapse.
"It takes a very mature officer who has a good sense of him- or herself to brush aside the normal fear of retribution, to worry less about the impact of being candid and direct on their potential for being promoted or being selected for command and more about the health of the Army," Moore said.
Another potential solution: old-fashioned shaming. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who serves on the Armed Services Committee, recently had an amendment approved that would require the military to release reports about misconduct involving senior officers.
The Navy report on McWherter was accompanied by strong statements condemning his actions.
"Our Navy has very high standards of conduct for all of our personnel," said Vice Adm. David Buss, commander of the Naval Air Force Pacific. "The totally inappropriate command environment fostered by Capt. McWherter was so unacceptable that it should have been clear to each member of the team that standards of personal decency and respect were violated. I will not accept the encouragement of such behavior on the part of a leader entrusted with the responsibility of command."