One day after a 22-year Army veteran accused her former boss, the Army’s top-ranking enlisted soldier, of sexually assaulting her last April, Army Secretary Togo West Jr. sought to assure Congress that the Army is a safe place for women to work.
“I believe our women in the military, in the Army, can feel safe, that their parents can feel that they’re safe,” West told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing on Tuesday.
But several senators expressed skepticism at the effectiveness of the Army’s “zero tolerance” policies toward sexual misconduct, particularly in light of the latest allegation and numerous reports that drill sergeants at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and at other Army bases raped or harassed dozens of women who were trainees.
“If I was a woman serving in the armed forces today, I would be very much concerned about the environment,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told West and other senior Army leaders at the hearing. “It’s not just sexual harassment. It is abuse of power and sexual misconduct.”
The senator added, “Even in the instances that we know about, where women have had the courage to come forward, we have seen incidents where the chain-of-command leaders have covered up the incident.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called “highly disturbing” the allegations that the senior enlisted man, Gene McKinney, the sergeant major of the Army, grabbed and kissed his former public affairs specialist, Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster, in her hotel room while they were on a business trip to Hawaii. She took early retirement from the Army last August.
On Monday, pending an investigation, McKinney stepped down from a panel reviewing the Army’s policies on sexual harassment. He denies he engaged in any form of sexual misconduct.
Publicly, the Army declined Tuesday to comment on the matter, citing a pending investigation. Privately, though, “sadness, disappointment and concern describes just about how everybody I know is feeling today,” a senior Army officer said.
“This is being taken very seriously,” said the senior Army official. “The woman is a very credible person.”
Besides McKinney, Army investigators will examine the role of Col. Robert Gaylord, the deputy chief of Army public affairs, in the matter. Hoster said that last June she told Gaylord, her superior at the Pentagon, about the sexual overtures her boss made to her in the military hotel room in Honolulu seven weeks earlier.
Hoster said Gaylord took no action against McKinney, ignored her pleas for a job transfer and left her with no alternative but to retire early. Gaylord has declined to comment, pending the investigation.
If Army investigators determine that there are no criminal charges to pursue with McKinney or Gaylord, the cases could be turned over to the Army inspector general for review.
Gaylord’s role has raised questions whether he alerted any of his superiors to Hoster’s complaint. Maj. Gen. Fred Gorden, the chief of Army public affairs when Hoster met with Gaylord, said on Tuesday that he first learned of the allegations Monday. Brig. Gen. John Meyer, who relieved Gorden last October, said he, too, did not hear about the complaint until Monday.
At the Pentagon, its chief spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said the new secretary of defense, William Cohen, “is confident that the Army will investigate the charges quickly, fairly and fully.”
Hoster said she had not intended to file a complaint until she heard that West had appointed McKinney to the review panel on sexual harassment last November.