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General’s court-martial comes at critical time

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 a military courthouse, where the Army is girding — for only the third time in half a century — to court-martial one of its generals.

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Brigadier General Jeffrey 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 US 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, rather than commanders, to oversee investigations of sexual abuse and other serious crimes. The Pentagon has resisted, arguing that commanders must retain the authority to enforce order and discipline in their units.

Although Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair has pleaded not guilty, his attorneys acknowledge that he carried on an affair with a subordinate officer 17 years his junior.

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The last Army general to face court-martial was Brigadier General Roger Duff, who pleaded guilty in June 2012 to making false official statements and wearing unauthorized decorations. In 1999, Major General David Hale pleaded guilty at court-martial, 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.

Given the intense debate in Congress on 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.

Although Sinclair has pleaded not guilty, his attorneys acknowledge that he carried on an affair with a subordinate officer 17 years his junior.

During a pretrial hearing last year, the woman testified that the pair had sex in the general’s quarters in Iraq, in her car in a German parking lot, in plain sight on a hotel balcony in Arizona, and in her cramped office in Afghanistan, among other locations. Some soldiers wondered and snickered about their relationship, but nobody reported it.

The depth of their passion might have remained hidden if the general and the captain had not bombarded each other with explicit text messages.

Many of the text messages betray a dark side to the affair — angry accusations from the unmarried captain, as well as threats to kill herself or expose the affair to Sinclair’s superiors. During an evidentiary hearing at Fort Bragg, she testified that they fought continually but usually made up afterward.

The final straw came in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in March 2012. The captain was snooping through Sinclair’s e-mail in his office and discovered tender messages to his wife, as well as love notes to another female Army officer.

By her own admission, she flew into a jealous rage. First, she fired an e-mail to the other female officer, saying, ‘‘I hope you don’t think you’re the only girl that he’s sleeping with.’’

Later that night, she burst into the office of Major General James Huggins, then the commander of the 82d Airborne Division and leader of all US forces in southern Afghanistan. Tears streaming down her face, she spent two hours confessing to the affair, according to court testimony.

The case grew more serious when the captain gave a formal statement accusing Sinclair of sexual assault by forcing her to perform oral sex against her will on two occasions in Afghanistan.

She also asserted that he had once vowed to kill her and harm her family if she ever told his wife about the affair. Sinclair’s attorneys deny that he made the threat and have accused the captain of making up the assault allegations to save her Army career. Richard Scheff, an attorney for Sinclair, noted that the woman has since been granted immunity by the prosecution.

Legal representatives for the woman did not respond to a request for comment placed through Army public affairs officials at Fort Bragg.

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