Conflict & Justice

General walks away from sexual assault charges — and victim advocates cry foul


U.S. Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair salutes outside a North Carolina courthouse where he stood accused of bullying a junior officer into sex and threatening her life.


Chris Keane / Reuters

A landmark case of sexual assault in the military screeched to a halt this week. 

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Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair stood accused of forcing a junior officer into sex and threatening her life.  But this week, he cut a deal with government prosecutors and pled guilty to lesser charges.

Paula Coughlin was watching the case closely. She was a lieutenant in the US navy in 1991 when she — along with dozens of others — was sexually assaulted at the Navy's Tailhook conference. Coughlin now works on behalf of sexual assault victims in the military.

She's angry that the prosecution's case against Gen. Sinclair fell apart.  And she says the plea deal shows the need to remove the military chain of command from legal proceedings in sexual assault cases.  

Coughlin says the Sinclair case demonstrates that the US military is not interested in combating the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.

"They're really more interested in not getting caught, not having to deal with the issue," Coughlin argues. 

She says military leadership wants to portray itself as committed to removing criminals from their ranks. "They present that image, but they really don't follow through. They really don't have the tools to do this," she argues. 

Victims of sexual assault in the military, like Coughlin, say the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the UCMJ — has to be changed to remove the ability of a commanding officer or convening authority to influence the outcome of a trial. 

Coughlin works with Protect Our Defenders, a group that supports victims of sexual assault in the United States military. 

"I have teenage children and the idea of either my son or my daughter going into the military right now, knowing if they were victimized, really they have no recourse, I don't want my children to carry on this family tradition. Not now, not the way it is," she says. 

On the face of it, the Sinclair case and the Tailhook scandal don't seem to have much in common. The Sinclair case began with two consenting individuals. But Coughlin sees a parallel in the failure of military leadership.

"There's always been a complicit attitude from leadership that says 'boys will be boys,'" she argues. "When my boss told me straight to my face when I explained to him my complaint, he said, 'That's what you get when you go down a hallway full of drunk aviators.'"

Coughlin argues that members of Gen. Sinclair's command have been victimized by his poor leadership and criminal activities. 

"The plea bargain that came out this week, it is the exact same message: 'that's what you get.' Until that attitude really, deeply changes — and I do believe that it is slowly changing — but until that attitude of 'that's what you get, that's the cost of doing business in the military,' changes, we've got a long row to hoe," Coughlin laments.