May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

The current investigation at the Army’s Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground—where 12 sergeants stand accused of sexual misconduct, including rape, involving some 50 trainees—is the latest embarrassment faced by the military over its treatment of women. But behind the sensational headlines are countless stories, like the ones on the following pages, which suggest to many women in the armed forces that in the war against harassment and bias, too many of their superiors are not committed to victory.

TOP-RANKING NCO STANDS ACCUSED

Brenda Hoster will never forget the afternoon last November when she read in the weekly Army Times that Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney, the nation’s top-ranking enlisted soldier, had been appointed to a new panel investigating sexual harassment in the Army. “I just said, ‘No way,’ ” she recalls. To Hoster, a retired sergeant major, the news could not have been more ironic. She says that seven months earlier, in a Hawaii hotel room, McKinney, then her boss, had sexually assaulted her. “He stripped me of my self-confidence, my trust in male leadership, some dignity and lots of respect,” says Hoster, 39.

It also left her so disillusioned that she abruptly retired from the Army last August, ending an impeccable 21-year career that had seen her rise to the top ranks of enlisted women. Hoster says she had been aware of sexism in the Army since her days as an 18-year-old recruit at the Yuma (Ariz.) Proving Ground, when she was invited to the Noncommissioned Officers club for happy hours. “Once you do that, then other things happen,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is what you do to be part of the team.’ If you didn’t do it, you were [called] a lesbian. If you did, you were easy.”

Yet by the time she was tapped as McKinney’s public affairs representative in July 1995, while serving at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, she assumed that pressures for dates and sex were behind her. “The last 10 years, I had been treated with nothing but dignity and respect,” she says. But during her second month on the job, McKinney complained that she hadn’t adequately prepared him for a press conference and exploded when she disagreed. After summoning her, he urged her to “lighten up” and then leaned over the couch where she was sitting, hemming her in. “You just need a good buttwhupping,” she recalls his saying. After he let her up, she promptly left.

Then, in March 1996, McKinney’s 18-year-old son, Zuberi, died after an automobile accident. Hoster sent McKinney several e-mail messages of support, and a month later traveled with him, his wife and several aides to Honolulu to visit troops. On the evening of April 8, McKinney stopped by Hoster’s hotel room. According to Hoster’s official complaint, “McKinney said, ‘You know, you’re just what I need right now,’ and then he leaned over and kissed me on the lips…. I put my right hand out and pushed him away and said, ‘Sergeant Major, you have just crossed the line.’ ”

Refusing to leave, Hoster says, McKinney told her, “I could take you right here, right now.” Hoster, who is 5’4″, says the 6-foot sergeant major then grabbed her by the waist and picked her up. “For a second, I was scared,” she says. But he put her down and left. Hoster immediately told two fellow sergeants what had happened and a month later confided in a friend, Patty Wooldridge, 55, a retired aircraft company executive whose husband, William, had been an Army sergeant major. “I saw her agonize over this,” Wooldridge says of Hoster’s eventual decision to report the incident.

Earlier in her career, while serving as a drill sergeant in the late ’70s, Hoster had turned in a fellow sergeant for having sex with women recruits, a move that earned her the enmity of several male colleagues. So this time, when she reported the impropriety to her superior officer, Col. Robert Gaylord, it was to request a transfer, not to file an official complaint. But “when I left the colonel’s office,” she says, “I knew I would have to retire because I wasn’t getting any help.” In a letter upon her departure, Maj. Gen. Fred Gorden, the Army’s chief of public affairs, praised her work—and, Hoster thinks, her silence—noting her “compassion and discretion in personal circumstances.”

Moving back to El Paso to restart her life, Hoster had all but dropped the matter until learning of McKinney’s appointment. “If the Army is serious, then the integrity of that panel is very important,” says Hoster, now working as a dental office manager while earning a degree in human-resources management. McKinney, who has been suspended from the panel pending the Army’s investigation, declines to comment on the charges, although friends defend him. Hoster acknowledges that bringing her complaint to light may embarrass the Army. “I’m not the one who caused that,” she says. “I just told the truth.”

AN ARMY RECRUIT CLAIMS CONDUCT UNBECOMING

Retired Maj. Ned Marrs felt a twinge of concern when his daughter Keely, 20, decided to join the Army in November 1991. A decade earlier, Marrs had formulated one of the first official Army policies banning sexual harassment at Fort Eustis, Va., after female journalists under his command in the public affairs office interviewed women on the base. “They recorded horrifying stories of rape, verbal harassment and physical sexual touching,” says Marrs, 50, now a real estate broker in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I just hoped Keely wouldn’t have to go through something like that.”

Initially, at least, Keely’s decision to enlist after dropping out of college the previous year seemed like a good choice. For basic training, she was assigned to an all-female unit at Fort Jackson, S.C., with a gruff but fair drill sergeant. “He was intimidating and didn’t cut any slack, but he was professional,” she says. Her troubles began at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., a more casual facility where she began training as a linguist in early 1992. Marrs struggled to keep up with the rigorous Russian course and was discomfited by her civilian instructor, who made sexually explicit jokes in class and ridiculed her for not laughing. “He made me feel uncomfortable,” she says. “I don’t think he had an influence on my grades, but he could have helped me succeed and he didn’t.”

Distressed with her marks and her inability to convince her academic advisers that her poor performance was not due to lack of effort, Marrs appealed to her company commander, Capt. Layban A. Green, for a fresh start in a new class. “I wanted more than anything to stay in that school and do well,” she says. “He was very consoling. He said, ‘Maybe we should go and talk sometime in a nonmilitary environment.’ ”

Marrs turned Green down, but after several more difficult weeks of class she agreed to go to his house on a Saturday evening to discuss her restart request. “He told me [he] needed more information,” says Marrs, and added that his young daughter would also be home. According to Marrs, Green handed her a beer as she arrived and started asking personal questions. Near the end of the hour-long meeting, she says, Green told her his daughter wanted to watch a video in the living room, and he asked her to move into the bedroom, where he touched her leg. “I remember feeling like I was going to throw up because I was so upset,” she says. “I said, ‘I really don’t feel comfortable with this. I would rather talk about this in your office,’ and I left.”

Marrs eventually left the DLI without completing her course and received an honorable discharge from the Army on Sept. 3, 1992. She reported Green’s alleged misbehavior in July 1992 and again last fall. The Army found insufficient evidence to determine that sexual harassment had occurred. “I have been found not guilty,” Green says. His accuser, who sticks by her story, remains deeply troubled by the experience. “[In the military] you cannot defend yourself verbally or physically,” says Marrs, who now works at a Denver bookstore and is planning to study philosophy at the University of Colorado next fall. “If it’s a commanding officer or someone who outranks you, you cannot turn around and slap them for making a rude comment.”

A NAVY INVESTIGATION LEADS TO NO CHARGES

Among other things, boot camp is supposed to prepare inductees for the rigors of military life. In her case, says Jennifer Buhler, the two months she spent at a Navy recruit center in Orlando did just that, but in ways that were presumably unintended. According to her later complaint to the Navy, after she arrived at the camp in August 1994, her company commander began making sexually suggestive comments, blew on the back of her neck and once tried to kiss her. But her problems began in earnest in November 1994 when she was assigned as a secretary to the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9, a hotshot fighter unit known as VX-9, at Point Mugu Navy Base in California. There she was allegedly subjected to constant requests for sex and lewd comments from married NCOs. In 1995 her supervisor even gave her lingerie for Christmas, which she returned. “I was afraid to say anything,” says Buhler, a Mormon from Salt Lake City. “People higher up can make your life miserable.”

A year ago, Buhler and three other enlisted women at Point Mugu made headlines by filing allegations of sexual harassment and found, they maintain, that their fears of retribution were justified. The Navy did launch an investigation—several, in fact. But after a few months all inquiries were dropped with no charges filed. According to Capt. Craig Weideman, commander of VX-9, the men involved were veterans with solid service records and on that basis were given the benefit of the doubt. “It was all hearsay,” Weideman told the press, “and it came down to who are you going to believe.”

While the accused got off without punishment, the women did not. Despondent, Buhler, 21, attempted suicide a year ago and was discharged from the Navy for what officials say was a “personality disorder.” Of the other three, sailor Kimberly Bowles, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was court-martialed for, among other things, showing disrespect to a superior by ignoring him when he addressed her. After her sentence was suspended, she asked to be discharged from the Navy. Sailor Debbie Clark, 23, of Los Angeles, was court-martialed and drummed out of the service for raising a threatening hand to one of the Navy investigators during a heated interview; sailor Amy Porretta, 22, of Ohio, was found guilty of falling asleep on watch, although her sentence was suspended. Captain Weideman concedes that the disciplinary action looks like retaliation, but he insists that it was not. Buhler, who now works for a credit-card company in Salt Lake City, ridicules that contention. “All I wanted to do was serve my country and get an education,” she says. “Now I have nothing.”

TOM FIELDS-MEYER and PATRICK ROGERS

VICKIE BANE in Denver

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