The Army took no action against Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe and allowed him to retire Sunday, ending a controversy after the service began an investigation into the armor officer’s conduct online following posts in which he took a stance against Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s disparaging comments about female soldiers.
“I retired honorably and without any reprimand or admonishment,” Donahoe told Military.com in an interview.
Donahoe’s planned July retirement had been put on hold over the investigation into his behavior on Twitter, where he regularly engaged with soldiers — often issuing encouraging words of support, part of a growing trend of Army officials using social media to have more regular exchanges with troops.
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The news that the service had been looking into Donahoe’s conduct served as a flashpoint over how the service handles public affairs and manages partisan media and lawmakers’ criticisms of the administration, all while attempting to make service more appealing to women and other underrepresented groups in the ranks.
Donahoe’s online engagement jumped into the spotlight after a public spat with Carlson. The pundit aired a segment in March 2021 heavily criticizing the Army for allowing women to serve, especially while pregnant, saying that the U.S. military is becoming “more feminine” as China’s military “becomes more masculine.”
In a rebuke, Donahoe tweeted a video of himself reenlisting a female noncommissioned officer, saying that the Fox News host “couldn’t be more wrong” about women in the service. That sentiment was shared by key service leaders including Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston and Gen. Paul Funk, who at the time was the head of Training and Doctrine Command, in addition to top-ranking officials in other branches.
“What we absolutely won’t do is take personnel advice from a talk show host or the Chinese military,” John Kirby, who at the time was the Pentagon press secretary, said. “Maybe those folks feel like they have something to prove — that’s on them. We know we’re the greatest military in the world today and, even for all the things we need to improve, we know exactly why that’s so.”
Donahoe’s tweet, and the similar reactions from other senior Army officials and the Pentagon, prompted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to write a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, accusing those leaders of being partisan actors, though none of the service officials spoke of politics.
Yet investigators found Donahoe, in particular, “exhibited poor judgment” and that “subsequent media coverage drew national attention” after an anonymous complaint about his conduct was filed, according to an inspector general report reviewed by Military.com.
After that report was published, Army officials and rank-and-file soldiers interviewed by Military.com panned the investigation for criticizing the former commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, simply for defending women online. The IG report also came as the service has made recent strides integrating women into the Army through a series of new policies and opening up combat arms jobs.
IG complaints can generally be filed by anyone in the services for almost any reason, and planned retirements can be stalled while those investigations are underway, sometimes being used by those with vague grievances to take a swipe at someone on their way out the door, one senior Army official told Military.com. Because of that, some sources with knowledge of the investigation believed complaints against Donahoe were more about partisanship.
Right-wing media has increasingly put the military in its crosshairs as one of its primary points of criticism of the Biden administration, arguing the services have become “woke,” a broad critique that they are acquiescing to progressive ideals in lieu of focusing on the need to wage war — accusations that have largely been lobbed at the military after President Joe Biden took office that often focus on policies that predate his presidency.
In his segment, Carlson mostly took issue with pregnant women serving, showing an image of a pregnant airman in a maternity flight suit, an effort at accommodating women that was begun during the Trump administration.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by the Army to talk, one service official with direct knowledge of the investigation told Military.com in October the investigation was less about the tussle with Carlson and right-wing pundits and more about Donahoe’s interactions with female service members online. The IG’s office found that none of those interactions were sexual, with the IG report claiming some of Donahoe’s public conversations online could have given the perception of preferential treatment.
Military.com interviewed multiple women Donahoe frequently engaged with on Twitter, none of whom described his behavior as inappropriate.
The investigation and the mixed response by senior leaders to its disclosure in news reports quickly put a spotlight on the Army’s public affairs and its struggles to quickly get information out on social media and to the press. Army Times was first to report Donahoe’s delayed retirement due to the IG investigation on Sept. 19, though the Army would not formally acknowledge the delay until Oct. 10 and only during a pre-scheduled press conference with senior leadership. There, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth urged that service leaders need to appear apolitical, although the IG report did not find that Donahoe’s comments were partisan.
Following the press conference, one public affairs official conceded the Army’s message was not well thought out and told Military.com on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly that the perception that Donahoe was picking a fight with a partisan commentator was enough for the situation to appear political, even if Donahoe’s actions weren’t. Multiple senior service officials and rank-and-file troops interviewed by Military.com blasted the Army’s slow response, saying it suggested women serving at all is inherently political.
It would take another four days after that press conference for senior Army officials, including Wormuth, Grinston and Gen. James McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, to coordinate a message to soldiers, sanctioning leaders to stand up for women online.
“There has been confusion on an issue where there should be none,” Wormuth said on Twitter. “So let me be clear: I expect [Army] leaders to stand up for women — and all Soldiers — who are unduly attacked or disrespected.”
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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