Commentary: Senior Officers Protective Association
“The Army has disgraced us all with the Sinclair sentence.” That’s what our friend, a retired general, wrote about the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who was accused of serious sexual misconduct with three women under his command. Only the third Army general to face court martial in 60 years, Sinclair received a tap — not even a slap — on the wrist: a reprimand and a $20,000 fine. No jail time.
To our friend, the Sinclair case represents a classic example of what he calls SOPA, the “Senior Officers Protective Association,” operating “at its most disgusting level.”
“I am personally familiar with it,” he explained, “based on my own involvement in trying to fire a colonel who worked for me in Europe for sexual malfeasance, and getting the response from my boss that ‘boys will be boys.’”
The general’s words and experience demand attention. He’s a Vietnam-era combat veteran who deeply loves his country. “The Sinclair affair,” he concludes, “was an embarrassment to all who have tried their best to serve honorably and fairly without discrimination.”
The day that the Sinclair verdict came down, a member of the Navy football team, Joshua Tate, was acquitted on charges of raping a fellow midshipman during a drunken party near Annapolis. The pretrial phase of that case contained a particularly obscene episode when lawyers for the player repeatedly questioned the woman about her preferences in underwear and sex acts.
Susan Burke, an attorney for the accuser, said that her client was “twice victimized: first by her attacker and then by the failed investigation and prosecution of this case.”
Yes, the military has made some progress in confronting the appalling level of sexual violence rampant in its ranks. And Congress has passed some useful reforms. But these two cases show how deep the problem runs, and how much the brass still has to learn.
At least the Sinclair and Tate cases came to trial. Many don’t get that far. During recent Congressional hearings, proponents of tougher measures offered these shocking statistics: In 2012, there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults on military personnel, men as well as women. Only 3,374 were reported and only 880 were prosecuted.
The Sinclair and Tate verdicts reinforce the lesson taught by those numbers: Don’t bother to complain; the SOPA still rules. After Sinclair escaped jail Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told the New York Times: “No one has any confidence in the system after a case like this.”
Delilah Rumburg, who studies sexual assault at the service academies, said Tate’s exoneration “sends a message” to future victims: “All these people are not going to believe me.”
What can be done? Congress did pass some positive changes last December: ending the statute of limitations on sexual assault and rape cases; barring military commanders from overturning jury convictions in such cases; mandating the dishonorable discharge of anyone convicted of a sex crime.
But on one contentious issue, the lawmakers balked. Sen. Gillibrand strongly advocated a proposal that would have struck directly at the SOPA by removing military commanders from the prosecution of sexual assault cases.
The current system, she argued, is “like your brother committing the sexual assault and having your father decide whether to prosecute.”
Gillibrand attracted 55 votes including 11 Republicans. But the military lobbied hard to retain the current system, and her amendment fell five votes short of breaking a filibuster.
That was before the Sinclair and Tate verdicts. The military had its chance to prove its argument, that the current system was fair and effective. And it failed. Gillibrand should keep pushing her proposal.
This issue is not just about rules and procedures, however. It’s also about culture. Power. Arrogance. In perhaps the most telling episode of all, Sinclair admitted to making derogatory statements about the women he abused.
When his staff challenged his language, he replied, “I’m a general, I’ll say whatever the (expletive) I want.”
When he was promoted to flag rank, our friend attended “charm school” with other new generals. He recalls a warning from a revered senior officer: “Just remember that the higher you go up the flagpole, the more your (rear end) shows.”
Too many of his fellow officers didn’t listen. What they heard was, “The more senior you become, the more you can get away with.”
Until that cultural conviction is uprooted, until the influence and attitude of the Senior Officers Protective Association is profoundly altered, the epidemic of sexual violence in the military will continue.