Praised soldier stands down after sexual harassment claims
By Hugh Davies in Washington

THE Pentagon has been hit by what could be the most embarrassing scandal since drunken fighter pilots went wild at a Las Vegas convention six years ago.

A woman has accused the army's senior enlisted man, Sgt Major Gene McKinney, 46, of molesting her twice, on one occasion at a hotel while his wife was in a nearby room. He stepped down yesterday from his position on the Army's Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment.

The case - one of 1,050 under examination - is causing panic in the military as the woman, a former drill sergeant major, says her superiors knew about the incidents, and yet appointed her attacker to the harassment panel, established to stop sexual misconduct in the ranks.

Colonel John Smith, director of the Army's public communications, said: "Sergeant Major McKinney denies he ever engaged in any form of sexual misconduct or improper treatment. He has, appropriately, excused himself from the duties pertaining to the investigation of sexual harassment." Just a few days ago, the accused soldier was praised at a White House ceremony by President Clinton for his service to the country.

Brenda Hoster, 38, said: "Here is this army that I served in for 20 years with a system of leadership I believed in. Here is a bunch of people I would have stood in any foxhole with and defended their lives with mine. They sold me out."

Ms Hoster painted a different picture of the man who advises the army chief of staff, Gen Dennis Reimer, on everything from the conduct of the 410,000 soldiers under his command to their health care. His Pentagon office is next door to the general's. Ms Hoster was assigned to deal with Sgt Major McKinney's public relations after being awarded a Bronze Star for her work in Saudi Arabia dealing with journalists after the Gulf war.

In a 13-page sworn statement she told of first being approached at a house at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She said she was summoned one evening to the sitting room by McKinney who was angry over an interview with reporters that had apparently gone badly. He blamed her, and other aides, for not preparing him properly.

Ms Hoster told him that she was upset. He said that she need not be defensive. She recalled: "He said with a smirk, 'You think you're tough, don't you'? Then he stood up and stepped towards me, leaned over the couch, placing his hands on the back of the couch, pinning me between him and the couch, and said, 'You just need a good butt-whooping'."

She said she then pushed him off and left. Later, when they were in Hawaii visiting troops a month after McKinney's 18-year-old son had died in a car crash, Ms Hoster said she was in her hotel room in Honolulu when he knocked on her door wanting to continue an earlier discussion.

Once inside the room, he complained about his aides, saying they had no idea of his personal anguish. Ms Hoster told him to go to his wife who was in a room down the hall. However, she alleged that he started making overtures, saying: "You know, you're just what I need right now." She said he kissed her on the lips. "I pushed him away and said, 'Sergeant Major, you have just crossed the line'."

She claimed that as she walked to the door McKinney said: "I could take you right here, right now." She said she opened the door but he closed it and grabbed her by the waist, lifting her a foot off the ground.

"He said, 'Ah, what a nice body you have'." She said she demanded that he release her, which he did, complaining that she had sexually excited him. She overcame her fears and eventually reported the details seven weeks later to a sergeant major and a colonel after friends had told her to seek help.

But with no reaction from the army, she decided to leave the army to work in a dental surgery in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. She filed charges after hearing about McKinney's appointment to the commission. "It wasn't right," she said. "He doesn't have any business being on that panel."

Though McKinney has suspended his duties on the sexual harassment panel he will continue to act as the Army's senior enlisted adviser.

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