When Brenda Hoster publicly accused the sergeant major of the Army of sexually assaulting her, it nearly destroyed her life. She thought it would be worth it.
“I felt like what I did was the right thing, the ethical thing, not just for me but for all military men and women,” Hoster, a retired sergeant major and public affairs specialist, said in one of two phone conversations. Her complaints against the Army’s top enlisted soldier were part of a wave of sex scandals that rocked the military in the 1990s. Today, Congress is still debating how to best reform the military justice system.
“Nothing’s changed. Why is that?” asked Hoster. “I feel like my journey was for nothing.”
It’s been nearly two decades since Hoster spoke out against Sergeant Major Gene McKinney, who was her boss. She’d stayed quiet for months after the alleged assault, which she said occurred in a Honolulu hotel room in 1996. Hoster said her superiors at the Pentagon told her to resolve her issues with McKinney (who was later acquitted) on her own, and later refused her requests to transfer. Feeling powerless and alone, Hoster chose to end her twenty-two-year career. “There was very little confidence back then about being a whistleblower,” she said. “It was fight or flight, and I flew.”
Around the same time a sex scandal at an Army training base in Aberdeen, Maryland, in which twelve officers were accused of assaulting female trainees, sparked public concern about assault in the military. Aberdeen came on the heels of the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, in which more than 100 officers were accused of assault or harassment. In response to the Aberdeen incident, the Army commissioned a panel to investigate its sexual harassment policies.
One of the appointees was McKinney. “I said, ‘Oh, hell no,’” remembered Hoster. In February of 1997 she decided to go public and filed a formal complaint with the Army. Five other women came forward to accuse McKinney for separate incidents. “It was about the ethics of it—nobody would do anything to help me, and now this guy was going to be on this panel investigating sexual harassment. To me, it was like nobody cared. I cared, and I spoke. And I paid dearly for it,” said Hoster.
After decades of scandals, investigatory panels and trials, the military still has not stemmed the sexual assault epidemic. Nor has it found a way to assure service members like Hoster that they will be heard and protected if they report crimes against them. Only two in ten service members who suffered “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012 reported the incidents. As the system is set up now they must do so through their commanding officer, who then decides whether the accusations warrant a trial by court martial.