FORT BRAGG, N.C. — With a single star studded on each shoulder of his immaculate dress blues, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair waited his turn to go through the metal detectors at the federal courthouse at Fort Bragg, just like everyone else.
He smiled broadly at one of the armed military police officers posted at the door and asked: “How many jumps do you have?”
The young soldier, wearing the wings of a paratrooper with the elite 82nd Airborne, stood a little straighter as he confidently answered, “28.”
The exchange last summer would be routine for a general building rapport with enlisted troops — but for the fact that Sinclair is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer ever charged with sexual assault.
Court-martial in March
Sinclair, 51, has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison at a court-martial scheduled to begin March 3.
While he denies the most serious allegation that he physically forced a female captain under his command to perform oral sex, the married father of two concedes he carried on a three-year extramarital affair with the junior officer. That admission alone will almost certainly end his 28-year Army career, as adultery is a crime under military law.
The female captain who made the initial complaint admits to having consensual sex with Sinclair on numerous occasions, both before and after the alleged assaults.
Prosecutors also allege the general had inappropriate contact with other women, including female officers expected to testify that he asked them to provide nude photos of themselves.
‘Always had a problem’
The case against Sinclair comes as the Pentagon is already grappling with a string of embarrassing revelations involving sexual misconduct within the ranks.
Prosecutions over such charges are on the rise even as the military’s own data suggests only about 1-in-8 sexual assaults are reported or prosecuted. Influential members of Congress are now pushing to remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, said Sinclair’s court-martial will be closely followed.
“The military has always had a problem with sexual assault, but they have never experienced this sort of political pressure and public scrutiny,” said Bhagwati, a former Marine captain.
Prosecutors portray Sinclair as a sexual predator who abused his position of authority to prey on a subordinate trained to follow his orders, threatening to kill her and her family if she told anyone of their relationship.
Sinclair’s defense lawyers have suggested he is the victim, both of a jealous ex-lover and overzealous prosecutors facing intense pressure from top military and political leaders to send a message that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated. They say the evidence against him is weak — a case that in the past might have been resolved with a quiet reprimand and early retirement.
It is extremely rare for such a high-ranking military officer to face a jury. Under the military justice system, members of the panel must be senior in rank to the person charged — ensuring that Sinclair will be judged by a jury of generals.
Fred Borch, the regimental historian for the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, said only about a dozen generals have been court-martialed since World War II.
“Obviously, men and women don’t reach flag rank unless they’re pretty special,” said Borch, a retired colonel who prosecuted sexual assault cases as an Army lawyer. “So, by its very nature, you’re going to have very, very few generals that get in trouble.”
While he awaits his fate, Sinclair has been assigned to desk duty at Fort Bragg, a sprawling Army base in the piney Sandhills of southeastern North Carolina. Relieved of his command, Sinclair now spends many of his days at home in the leafy heart of the base reserved as quarters for those of high rank.
Rebecca Sinclair, 47, has emerged as her husband’s most ardent public defender, appearing in nationally televised interviews to call attention to the strain placed on military marriages by repeated yearlong war deployments since 9/11. While she says she can’t condone her husband’s infidelity, Rebecca Sinclair is steadfast that the sexual assault accusations don’t square with the man she has known for 30 years.
“My husband has made mistakes. He knows that, and he has admitted those mistakes to me,” she said. “But do I understand how these things happen? Of course I do. We’re not the only people in the military this has happened to. When you have the separations year after year, the marriage that you started out with isn’t the marriage you have in the end.”