Maj. Gen. Joseph P. Harrington, commander of U.S. Army Africa, at the closing ceremony of the African Land Forces Summit 2017, in Lilongwe, Malawi, May 11, 2017.

Maj. Gen. Joseph P. Harrington, commander of U.S. Army Africa, at the closing ceremony of the African Land Forces Summit 2017, in Lilongwe, Malawi, May 11, 2017. (U.S. Army Africa)

VICENZA, Italy — He texted her from Malawi, Ethiopia, Morocco and home. He called her a hottie, told her she was clever and said her smile brightened everyone’s day. He also said she was dangerous, with a crazy, naughty streak, and that he’d enjoy being in a tent with her.

For three months, Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington, commander of U.S. Army Africa, exchanged flattering, playful and flirtatious messages with the much younger Italian wife of an enlisted man.

The woman shared her messages with Harrington that she kept on her phone, during a recent interview with Stars and Stripes.

She felt betrayed and angry when Harrington abruptly ended their friendship, she said, and had been convinced by her furious husband and by others that Harrington’s texts had crossed the line and should be exposed.

Harrington repeatedly sought promises from her to keep their correspondence a secret.

“You are a good man and you don’t have to worry with me,” she replied to one such entreaty, according to a screen shot. “I am Iron Lady.”

But last month some of the thousand or so messages she said were exchanged over three months became news after the friendship ended. The woman and her husband went public with the screen shots after approaching an advocacy group for advice.

The Army Inspector General, also provided with the messages, began an investigation. Although the IG does not initiate criminal cases, a negative finding could force Harrington’s retirement and spell the end of his 30-year career.

Harrington is currently suspended from command.

The woman requested anonymity to protect herself and her husband, who joined the interview near its conclusion after returning from work.

Harrington declined to comment after being made aware of this story, saying through a spokesman that he was unable to do so during the investigation. He has not denied that he sent the messages.

The woman said that she and Harrington became friends on Facebook after becoming acquainted in February at the base gym. She hoped that he might help her with some community projects she had in mind, she said.

“Then after a little bit he start teasing me,” she said. “He was (giving) charming compliments. He was smart. He was not a pig. He cared about what I say.”

Before long, she said the two were sharing private stories.

“I tell a lot of very confidential stuff about my past, even a sad, very personal story,” she said. “I trust him as a friend.”

She told Harrington that her marriage was strained and that she felt lonely.

“I am sorry ...,” Harrington responded, according to a screen shot of the message. “I wish you two the very best. However, I don’t think your husband would be happy if he knew you chatted with another man.”

Harrington asked the woman repeatedly in his messages where her husband was.

It was nice, she said, late at night when she was up alone — her husband asleep or playing video games in the next room — to get a message from Harrington. Having the attention of the attractive, most powerful U.S. military man in northern Italy was heady, she said — even if he repeatedly brushed aside her requests to meet in public for a coffee, saying he couldn’t because he was always accompanied by Carabinieri, Italy’s military police force.

“As a woman, I feel a sense of power,” the woman said.

Harrington didn’t discuss his marriage, she said. But he enjoyed her compliments that he was “super cool” and “adorable,” and was for a time persistent in messaging her. Asked why she thought he was interested in her, she said, “I’m funny. I make men laugh and I have no filter.”

When he contacted her once from Marrakesh, Morocco, she jokingly asked why he was in Morocco so much. Did he have a secret wife there?

He replied, also joking, that maybe she could be his Moroccan-Italian wife.

Some texts were whimsical. “I would love some ice cream,” the woman announced in one late-night session.

“Served on a platter,” Harrington replied.

“Yes chocolate vanilla and caramel,” she wrote.

“At your service,” Harrington wrote.

“What service? U bring me ice cream?”

“Of course!” Harrington replied.

“It was a game between two,” the woman said. “It was fun.”

But sometime in the spring, Harrington’s messages stopped.

When she asked him what had happened, he replied briskly that he’d been busy. “Super cold. Super short. A completely different man,” the woman said.

When she messaged him to ask him to have lunch, complete with headshots of two encouraging cats, he replied: “You are kind. Perhaps one day our schedules will support a get-together. Hope you are well.”

When she persisted in asking what had happened, he told her that their texting relationship had been “episodic” and that he didn’t understand why she was demanding that he communicate with her.

The woman said she was certain that Harrington quit texting her because his wife had caught him. Harrington denied it.

“As for my wife, I wasn’t keeping our dialogue from her. It simply never came up,” he wrote.

Then he told her that he’d shown his wife their messages.

That did it. “I felt betrayed. I felt used,” the woman said.

“If he told me we should talk about our friendship, we should end it because it’s wrong,” that would have been one thing, the woman said. “But the way he did it. He slammed the door in my face. He wrote me like a jerk. Like I’m a child.

“So I did like him (and) I tell my husband,” she said. “And he wants to go punch him in the face.”

Harrington’s earlier assertion was correct: the woman’s husband did not like that she’d been chatting with another man, particularly him.

“I was pretty mad,” the husband said. “For somebody at that rank and with that experience — they know better. They probably have more SHARP classes than all of us combined,” he said, referring to mandatory annual training about sexual assault and harassment.

Her husband was angry at her as well. To prove she was sorry and to make amends, he told her she should tell the authorities. The couple got in touch with Protect Our Defenders, the advocacy group for military victims of sexual assault and harassment. The group advised that going to the media, rather than solely informing the Army, would force the service to take the matter seriously.

The husband said he has no regrets. “We’re just trying to expose (Harrington) because he’s not right, he’s wrong,” he said.

The woman said she has mixed feelings and that she feels bad for Harrington’s family, but that he bears responsibility for what happened.

“I am not innocent completely. Maybe I am wrong to reply,” she said. “But I am not a general.”

In one of several texts in which Harrington sought assurances that she’d tell no one about their relationship, he said she had “a little playful devil inside.”

“Devil is inside all of us since the day Eve mess up with that apple,” the woman replied.

“Actually, it was Adam’s mess up!” Harrington wrote.

Then he asked, “How often does your devil vixen come out?”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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