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.
In this photo taken on Nov. 24, 2011, and released by the U.S. Army, Army Capt. Joseph M. Lapoint, second from right, executive officer for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, is congratulated for his Combat Infantryman Badge awarded by Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, left, Deputy Commanding General, 82nd Airborne Division, at Forward Operating Base Lagman, in Zabul province, Afghanistan.
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."