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Betrayed military spouses often keep quiet for fear of losing benefits

Col. James H. Johnson III, left, walks with his defense counsel Lt. Col. Charles Kuhfahl, to the courtroom at Kleber Kaserne in Kaiserslautern, Germany, for the opening day of his court-martial. Johnson pleaded guilty to 15 of 27 specifications, including bigamy, adultery and fraud. Behind them is Johnson's father, retired Lt. Gen. James H. Johnson Jr.

FT. BRAGG, North Carolina — Within the tight circle of Army spouses, 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 here March 16 not to strip her and her two young sons of military benefits after her husband, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, pleaded guilty to a long-running, coercive affair with a junior officer. The general was allowed to retire at a reduced rank, preserving up to $830,000 in benefits he and his family had earned for his 27 years of service.

Fear of losing benefits keeps many military wives from exposing sexual misconduct or other offenses committed by their husbands, say many of those familiar with the military criminal justice system. 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 even if the offender is sentenced harshly.

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, to be completed in May, 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 after sacrificing for years to support a philandering spouse's career.

Since 2000, at least 19,000 service members have been dismissed from the military for misconduct, according to the Pentagon. In the last five years, 116 senior service members who have otherwise earned full military pensions with more than 20 years of service have been ejected from the military after a court-martial. For families suddenly stripped of health and dental care, military IDs and base housing after many years of service, the impact can be devastating.

Among those affected was Kari Bales, wife of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, convicted of killing 16 Afghan civilians and sentenced to life in prison. She stands to lose her benefits if and when Bales' life sentence is made final by the Army command in a review set for this summer, officials said.

"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 Assn.

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 of the two officers.

Transitional benefits are already available to spouses of service members convicted of domestic violence. Families get up to three years of healthcare, commissary and PX privileges and other benefits, including travel expenses to escape an abusive spouse.

Jeffrey Sinclair's sentencing March 20 drew widespread outrage. The 51-year-old general was allowed to retire at a lower rank, with benefits, after pleading guilty to adultery, mistreating his mistress, misusing his government charge card, impeding an investigation and other charges. He was fined $20,000 and ordered to repay $4,156 in charge card bills.

He had faced life in prison if convicted on original charges of sexual assault and making death threats, which were dismissed as part of a plea deal.

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.

Johnson said she supported her husband's career for 25 years, constantly moving and enduring multiple deployments while caring for two children. Like many military spouses, she was unable to build her own career; she relied instead on military benefits, including a generous pension earned after 20 years of service.

"I served too," said Kimberly Henne, who was married for 21 years to an Army master sergeant who was reduced in rank and sentenced to four years in prison for inappropriate contact with a minor. She kept her benefits when a judge allowed her ex-husband to remain in the Army.

"Those benefits are their meal ticket, their means of support," Henne said of spouses. "They're too important to risk."

Henne said she wrote the judge, citing her benefits and asking him not to dismiss her ex-husband. She said he imposed the prison sentence and reduction in rank to specialist in order to compensate for not discharging the master sergeant.

Johnson said she finally turned her ex-husband in because his behavior had become so audacious; he lived with his mistress and appeared with her at gatherings with fellow officers.

"I knew no one else was going to stop him, so I had to," she said.

In Rebecca Sinclair's letter to the judge, she 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."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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