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. Sinclair nodded in approval, not mentioning the 217 jumps listed in his own log. After a few more pleasantries, Sinclair put his arm around the man and smiled again as another MP snapped a cellphone photo.
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.
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.
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.
It has been a steep fall for a man once considered a rising star among the Army’s cadre of trusted battlefield generals. As deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne, Sinclair oversaw 22,000 troops until he was abruptly sent home from Afghanistan last year and criminally charged.
Steely eyed and well over six feet tall, Sinclair still cuts the figure of the prototypical paratrooper. He is a veteran of five overseas combat deployments and winner of four Bronze Star medals. In battle, Sinclair enjoyed the confidence of his superiors and elicited fear and awe from subordinates.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Sinclair was decorated for helping smash Iraq’s vaunted Republican Guard. In 2003, he helped command the first airborne combat brigade deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Taliban.
As a battalion commander in Iraq in 2004, Sinclair was tasked with stabilizing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. He returned to Iraq three years later to command the bulk of U.S. troops in the volatile southern half of the country, and is credited with stabilizing the region despite steep losses from armor-piercing roadside bombs.
Copies of Sinclair’s military performance evaluations obtained by The Associated Press show his superiors consistently rated him highly and put him on the fast track for advancement. In a July 2011 evaluation, then-82nd Airborne commander Maj. Gen. James L. Huggins enthusiastically endorsed Sinclair for promotion to the higher rank of major general.
"Jeff Sinclair is clearly the brightest and most multi-talented officer I have ever served with," Huggins wrote. "Whenever the division is challenged with critically tough tasks, Jeff finds a solution and the results are quick, efficient, and superb. … If I could choose my successor, it would be Jeff."
Many subordinates described him in similarly glowing terms, even the woman accusing him of sex crimes.
"Everybody in the brigade spoke about Gen. Sinclair as if he was a God," she testified at an evidentiary hearing. "I heard from all of the male soldiers that I worked with what a hardened killer he was. I mean, they would tell stories about when he was a battalion commander, how everybody was like hunkered down behind vehicles and scared to death because the firing was just nonstop and … (Sinclair) would get out in the street and … walk through as if there was no one shooting at him."
The AP generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.
But the same man who would share cigars relaxing around a campfire with his junior officers or be quick to pat an enlisted paratrooper on the back also had a reputation as tough taskmaster. He could also be prone to arrogance, according to sworn testimony.
According to prosecutors, when Sinclair was confronted by a subordinate about using inappropriate language to describe female soldiers, he responded: "I’m a general, I’ll say whatever the (expletive) I want."
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.
Heeding the advice of his lawyers, Sinclair declined comment for this article. But he was present, dressed casually in a button-down oxford and jeans on a weekday last summer when an AP reporter visited his home to interview his wife.
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."
The couple met on a blind date at West Virginia University, where the future general was an ROTC cadet. He came from modest means, the son of a factory worker who worked in a coal mine to help pay for college. But she liked that he was tall and says she could tell he was going places.
If there is any silver lining to their situation, Rebecca Sinclair said it is that her husband has been home to focus on being a dad. They have two school-aged sons.
"It has been a year for rebuilding," she said. "Whenever your husband says those words to you that no wife wants to hear, it’s painful. But we make our choices and decide what is most important to us. We’re working on our marriage and trying to get through this."
The couple are investing significant financial resources in the effort to keep Sinclair out of prison and fight a potential reduction in rank that could cost him in retirement benefits. Sinclair replaced his court-appointed military lawyers and retained a team of civilian attorneys specializing in white-collar defense.
They have also hired a New York City public relations firm to orchestrate a media strategy that includes a website touting Sinclair’s military accomplishments while proclaiming his innocence and revealing information about his primary accuser intended to undercut her credibility.
Rebecca Sinclair chose not to attend the lengthy pretrial hearings that included intimate details of her husband’s relationship with the young captain.
The woman, who served under Sinclair’s direct command during combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the general twice settled arguments with her by grabbing her head and forcing her to perform oral sex as she sobbed. She also says Sinclair threatened to kill her and her parents if she told anyone about their frequent sexual liaisons in hotels, headquarters and war zones.
"I was not to say anything to anyone or he would kill me. And then he said he would kill my family and that he could do it in a way that nobody knew it was him," the woman tearfully testified at a pretrial hearing. "Because I know he killed people in combat … I didn’t think he would say that unless he really meant it."
In court, the defense team has tried to paint Sinclair’s accuser as a scorned lover, willing to lie to destroy him because he refused to leave his wife. They note that the woman didn’t make the accusations until she saw emails the general had exchanged with other women and tearfully told Huggins, Sinclair’s mentor.
By revealing the adulterous affair, the captain potentially jeopardized her own career. Prosecutors later granted her immunity in exchange for her testimony at Sinclair’s court-martial.
At a pretrial hearing, the woman admitted she enjoyed sex with her commander on numerous occasions, even though she says he was sometimes physically domineering and emotionally abusive. She also introduced Sinclair to her parents after she says he threatened to kill them. Among the evidence likely to be presented in the case are thousands of often sexually explicit text messages in which the general and the captain profess their love for one another.
Even as Sinclair faces a lengthy prison sentence, the woman tearfully acknowledged on the witness stand she has mixed feelings about seeing him charged with crimes.
"In a (expletive) up way I still love him," she said, avoiding Sinclair’s gaze as he sat nearby at the defense table. "I don’t want him to be upset with me."