WHEN IT COMES TO THE WAR BETWEEN THE SEXES, the military has often seemed to have its own rules of engagement. Consensual extramarital affairs have been harshly punished (see page 152) while sexual harassment has been virtually ignored. Until, that is, a former Army sergeant major stepped out of retirement to draw the line. “It’s not going to help Brenda Hoster,” the 21-year veteran told PEOPLE earlier this year. “But fixing it is going to help other soldiers.”
In February, Hoster formally accused Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney, 47, the branch’s highest-ranking noncommissioned officer and her former boss, of sexually assaulting her in a Honolulu hotel room 10 months earlier. Hoster says that she told a superior of the incident in June 1996 and asked to be transferred. When that request was ignored, Hoster, now 40, left the military. She says she only decided to press charges after McKinney, who has pleaded innocent, was named to a task force investigating sexual harassment complaints.
The Army won’t comment on McKinney, who was relieved of his command in October and now faces a court-martial and up to 56 years in prison on charges including assault and adultery. But to an organization already reeling from allegations of male drill sergeants attacking female trainees at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Hoster’s accusation was a devastating blow. “People say, ‘This is a sad day for the Army,’ ” Hoster’s friend Patty Wooldridge said in February. “Why? You can’t do something about something if you keep sweeping it under the rug.” Since Hoster came forward, five other female soldiers have charged misconduct by McKinney, and the Army has focused additional training on combating sexual harassment. Also, several congresswomen have proposed new laws to change the way such complaints are handled. But Hoster, who has been finishing up a degree in human resources management at Park College near El Paso, isn’t celebrating. “It still causes her pain,” says Wooldridge. “I think she’s one strong woman for having done it.”