The court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair concluded with a controversial verdict — the product of a plea deal wherein the general was spared the more serious charges that might have called for a prison sentence, and instead pleaded to lesser offenses such as adultery (still a crime in the military) and maltreating a subordinate.
Reasonable people will continue to disagree about the severity of the general’s punishment, and whether it fit the crime. Some will wonder if Army justice for general officers, like civilian justice for the wealthy, favors the accused. Others will talk about alleged Pentagon interference in the court-martial, acknowledged by the court, to ensure that the general was dealt with sternly in order to satisfy a political imperative that the military look like it was cracking down on sex offenses.
I’ll leave the parsing of those details up to the legal analysts. Instead, I’d like to focus on a plea General Sinclair uttered just before his sentencing. It was about his pension, which was going to be knocked back to that of a lieutenant colonel’s — his rank the last time he “served honorably.”
As Sinclair told the court, "I ask you to retire me at a reduced rank and not punish my family, depriving them of benefits they have earned (my italics)."
Those words were shorthand for a sobering narrative of the sacrifices military families must make: of nomadic living, of children being forced to pull up roots, leave friends and attend multiple schools. They speak of Spartan military housing, desolate postings and months and years of separation while the serving spouse is stationed abroad. They describe the excruciating uncertainty over whether he or she will ever return alive or uninjured, and the almost inevitable marital problems stemming from the accumulated stresses of duty. They allude to the elevated suicide rate and rampant depression among Army personnel when compared to the general population. Yes, Sinclair’s family certainly earned his star, along with its associated benefits. It also suffered its associated perils.
To a civilian, invoking family as a way to mitigate punishment may seem craven, but Sinclair knew that all the members of the court were military people, steeped in their unique culture. They were fully aware of the salience of his argument.