FORT BRAGG, N.C. — It was an illicit and volatile love affair that spanned two war zones and four countries. The married general couldn’t stay away from a captain on his staff. She fell hard for her boss and called him “Poppa Panda Sexy Pants.” The three-year entanglement ended disastrously for both, at a time that could not be worse for the Army.
All the raw and sordid details are spilling out in an austere military courthouse here, where the Army is girding — for only the third time in half a century — to court-martial one of its generals.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, an Army Ranger and paratrooper, stands accused of forcible sodomy, adultery and other charges that could land him in prison. Prosecutors say he abused his command authority by sleeping with a subordinate officer, a taboo in the armed forces and a violation of military law.
They charge that the relationship turned violent on two occasions, when he allegedly forced her to perform oral sex.
In addition, Sinclair faces charges that he had inappropriate communications with three other female officers.
Sinclair has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Besides the rare spectacle of a general in the dock, however, the case poses a critical test of how the U.S. military handles allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, crimes that have long bedeviled the armed forces.
Congress and President Obama have demanded a crackdown, alarmed by a recent string of scandals and frank admissions by military leaders that they have systematically failed to address the problem.
A growing faction of lawmakers is pushing to rewrite the underpinnings of military law by giving power to uniformed prosecutors, instead of commanders, to oversee investigations of sexual abuse and other serious crimes. The Pentagon is resisting, arguing that commanders must retain the authority to enforce order and discipline in their units.
The last Army general to face court-martial was Brig. Gen. Roger B. Duff, who pleaded guilty in June 2012 to making false official statements and wearing unauthorized decorations. The Army did not publicly disclose that Duff had been court-martialed until months later, when Sinclair was charged.
In 1999, Maj. Gen. David R.E. Hale pleaded guilty at court-
martial after he was accused of committing adultery with the wives of four subordinates. He was fined and demoted. Before that, no Army general had faced court-martial since 1952, when Maj. Gen. Robert W. Grow, a military attache in Moscow, was suspended and reprimanded on charges of dereliction of duty.
Given the intense debate in Congress over possible far-reaching changes to military law, all sides are intently watching how Sinclair’s court-martial plays out. It is scheduled to begin Sept. 30 after months of evidentiary hearings and pretrial wranglings that have foreshadowed what is at stake.
Last week, the Army finished selecting a jury of five major generals, all men, who will determine Sinclair’s fate. Under military law, each juror must be senior in rank to the defendant. More than 40 generals were summoned to Fort Bragg from around the world to be interviewed. Most were rejected because they knew Sinclair or other key potential witnesses.
During jury selection, lawyers for both sides acknowledged the heavy political pressures swirling around the case.
They asked the potential jurors if they were worried that they might be passed over for promotion if they reached an unpopular verdict. They also questioned whether the generals could resist outside influences, such as Obama’s angry comments in May, when he demanded that military sex abusers be “prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”
Virtually all the generals said that sexual assault is a serious problem in the ranks and that they had previously heard about the charges against Sinclair. One revealed that he had attended an Army-mandated training session on sexual assault prevention in which Sinclair was depicted as a case study in bad behavior.
Another commander, Maj. Gen. Kendall W. Penn of the 1st Army, candidly recalled what he thought when he first read news accounts of the case. “My general reaction was, this is going to be a black eye on the Army,” he said. He was later culled from the jury pool.
Retired Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a Duke University law professor and a former deputy judge advocate general for the Air Force, said the atmosphere surrounding sexual assault cases in the military has become “hyperpoliticized.”
He said that Sinclair could receive a fair trial but that the five jurors will have to “exercise moral courage in a way they’ve perhaps never been asked to do before in a military justice setting.”
Although Sinclair has pleaded not guilty, his attorneys acknowledge that he carried on an affair with a subordinate officer 17 years his junior. The Washington Post generally does not name alleged sex-crime victims.