The Air Force has fired one of its most senior generals after an investigation into whether he had an affair with a married female officer found that they had exchanged emails that were “sexually suggestive.”

Lt. Gen. John Hesterman was removed from his position as Air Force assistant vice chief of staff, service spokeswoman Anne Stefenek said Thursday. Hesterman previously served as the commander of Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), leading the early days of the U.S. air war against the Islamic State militant group while deployed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar from July 2013 to last June.

The investigation was launched after a complaint was lodged with the Air Force inspector general last August that Hesterman had carried on an unprofessional relationship and meddled inappropriately in the assignments of the woman’s husband, who himself also was an Air Force colonel. The husband alleged to the Air Force that a relationship dated back to at least 2007, when Hesterman was a married one-star general and commander of the 48th Fighter Wing, which flies F-15 jets out of England.

Hesterman, who could not be reached for comment Thursday night, also surprised people by saying at the ceremony when the husband was promoted to colonel that he had “married the girl we were all in love with,” the husband alleged.

Hesterman denied that any sexual relationship took place, but emails entered into the eventual divorce proceedings between the female officer and her husband were examined by the inspector general. They alone were enough to end the career of a seasoned general who earned valor awards for flying in combat and participated in the opening night of operations in the Persian Gulf war.

In one email string dated late March and early April 2010, he and the woman, then a lieutenant colonel, exchanged a series of messages in which he called the woman “Gorgeous” and said he was visiting Hawaii before deploying to Qatar, where he served as the deputy commander of AFCENT from July 2010 to June 2011.

“In Waikiki for… spring break and last big trip before Qatar… thinking of you often here… we would love it… and you would be in perpetual trouble ;) xxx”

A few months later on Valentine’s Day weekend, Hesterman emailed her because of the holiday.

“My dear and so beautiful…. On this Valentine’s Day, please know I am thinking of you… I miss you and hope you are happy and well. Much Love, J.” Hesterman continued corresponding on April 4, 2011, calling her “my lovely Girl,” sprinkling in numerous emoticons and saying that he wanted to see her when he returned to Washington after his deployment.

“This place has been fascinating if a tad relentless, I’ve been at work every day but 3 in the last 9 months… I’ve at least gotten into very good shape, even a little a definition… you should check ;),” he wrote. “I’m really happy you’ll be living close by… I think of you more than you know (you get in trouble a lot:) I would so love to see you.”

The inspector general’s report said the emails were found by the husband, and the woman confirmed they were real under questioning during the divorce proceedings, which the report characterized as contentious. She said that she had never been unfaithful to him in any way, but her husband had.

The inspector general found that Hesterman engaged in an unprofessional relationship with a subordinate officer and demonstrated conduct unbecoming of an officer.

“The language used by Lt Gen Hesterman goes far beyond a mentorship scenario and is sexually suggestive in places and romantic in other places,” the report said. “In engaging in such email exchanges, Lt Gen Hesterman violated [Air Force rules] because he adversely affected the Air Force, helped dissolve a marriage between two members, eroded good order, discipline, and respect for authority, and these exchanges indicate an abandonment of Air Force goals for personal interests…

“Simply put, Lt Gen Hesterman’s emails to [the woman] — two officers, both married but not to each other — are sexually suggestive and indicate a strong desire to be with her in a romantic way,” the report adds.

Stefanek said Thursday that the case was referred to Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force vice chief of staff. Goldfein issued Hesterman a letter of reprimand, and Hesterman relinquished his position and submitted paperwork for his retirement.

Goldfein has launched an officer grade determination process that will decide whether Hesterman gets to retire as a three-star general or something less. The military often retires officers at the last rank at which they served satisfactorily.

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