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A cruel system for military wives

Within the tight circle of Army spouses at Fort Bragg, N.C., Kris Johnson and Rebecca Sinclair became close friends as their ambitious husbands advanced rapidly in the officer corps.

Both women were ultimately betrayed by their philandering spouses. Both endured public humiliation as their high-ranking husbands were hauled before courts-martial amid salacious testimony about adultery and other sex-related military crimes.

And both women, along with their children, risked losing a lifetime of military benefits if their husbands were dismissed from the Army.

"You're advised to keep your mouth shut and let him retire because you could lose everything," said Johnson, whose now ex-husband, an Army colonel, pleaded guilty in 2012 to adultery, bigamy and other charges.

Rebecca Sinclair begged a military judge last month not to strip her and her two sons of military benefits after her husband, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, pleaded guilty to a long-running, coercive affair with a junior officer.

In a letter to the judge, Rebecca Sinclair said dismissing her husband from the Army would punish her and her sons, 12 and 10, "the only truly innocent victims" of the scandal. "A fair sentence," she added, "is one that doesn't punish us any further."

The general was allowed to retire at a reduced rank, preserving up to $830,000 in benefits he and his family had earned in 27 years of service.

Fear of losing benefits keeps many military wives from exposing sexual misconduct or other offenses committed by their husbands. Johnson kept quiet about her husband, Col. James H. Johnson III, while he carried on an affair with an Iraqi woman while deployed to that country.

But when Col. Johnson moved his mistress into his military quarters in Italy, his wife turned him in — painfully aware that she and her two children might be cut off from benefits as a result. A military jury in 2012 allowed the colonel to retire at reduced rank, keeping the benefits intact.

In both the Johnson and Sinclair cases, court concerns that dismissing the officers would also punish their families helps explain the relatively light sentences. Kris Johnson and others have campaigned for changes that would provide benefits to spouses of service members kicked out of the military for crimes.

Congress responded in January with a provision that requires the Pentagon to study the feasibility of providing "transitional benefits" to families in these cases. The study will consider such questions as how long benefits might last and who would be eligible for them.

The changes would strengthen the military justice system, advocates contend. They would encourage spouses to report criminal behavior and clear the way for military judges or jury panels to impose heavier sentences. At the same time, they say, the proposed protections would support spouses who are otherwise cut loose.

Since 2000, at least 19,000 service members have been dismissed from the military for misconduct, according to the Pentagon. For families suddenly stripped of health and dental care, military IDs and base housing, the impact can be devastating.

"Family members have called us with heart-rending stories of suddenly being cut off through no fault of their own," said Joyce Wessel Raezer, director of the National Military Family Association.

Kris Johnson spurred the family group to petition Congress for the changes. Senior officers like her ex-husband and Brig. Gen. Sinclair can feel invincible and entitled after years of command authority and time spent away from their families, she said.

"When they had their zippers unzipped, they weren't thinking of their families," she said.

Col. Johnson was fined $300,000 in 2012, but allowed to retire as a lieutenant colonel. He pleaded guilty to adultery, bigamy, fraud, misuse of government funds and other charges that could have resulted in up to 54 years in prison.

Kris Johnson said prosecutors told her that the five Army officers on the jury panel kept him in the Army because they wanted to protect benefits for her and her children. "Justice was not served," she said.

A cruel system for military wives 04/06/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 6, 2014 7:26pm]

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