Military Challenged to Punish its Own in McKinney Trial

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney, Managing Editor

When former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Gene McKinney was found not guilty of sexual misconduct in March, feminists were surprised but not shocked.

NOW Vice President Membership Karen Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is both encouraged and frustrated by the verdict. "In Tailhook 83 women were assaulted or harassed and not one man was brought to trial. That McKinney was court-martialed at all is a big step,"

Johnson said. "But," she added, "the fact that the jury could listen to the testimony of those six women and then weigh McKinney's record as a soldier against them . . . well, that just shows that the system is still broken."

Further evidence of a system that protects its male members over its female members is the recent announcement that the Pentagon will allow McKinney to collect the significantly higher pension of a sergeant major, although the jury sentence reduced his rank to master sergeant.

Six women testified in the court-martial that McKinney pressured them for sex, grabbed them, and in some cases assaulted or threatened them. One woman alleged that McKinney forced her to have sex with him while she was nearly eight months pregnant.

The military jury found McKinney guilty of only one of the 19 charges against him -- obstruction of justice for encouraging one of the women to lie to investigators.

Johnson does not believe that the jury was saying McKinney was completely innocent of the other charges: "How can you be guilty of trying to cover something up that never happened?"

She believes that the jury wanted to give McKinney a break. This may have been related to accusations of racism against the Army by McKinney and others who felt that he was being singled out. Johnson said that while racism may certainly have caused him to receive harsher treatment, that does not mean he is not guilty. "We must see to it that all accused offenders are investigated, tried and punished regardless of their race or rank. The military has proven that they cannot police their own. That is why NOW has continually called for an outside agency to assume responsibility for handling sexual harassment complaints for the military."

For any woman who followed the trial and its aftermath, an important reminder was given on how the miliary, and many businesses, deal with sexual harassment. The women who charged McKinney were grilled at length by his lawyers both in the pre-trial hearing and then again in the court-martial. They were subjected to accusations and implications about their personal lives. And after his sentencing, McKinney filed a $1.5 million civil lawsuit against the first woman to accuse him.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster came forward last year after learning that McKinney was to be appointed to a panel investigating sexual harassment in the military. It was her initiative that prompted the other five women to speak out.

Since reclaiming his full pension, McKinney has dropped the lawsuit.

"The civil suit was just a continuation of the harassment," Johnson said. "It was an obvious attempt to make Hoster pay for speaking out."

Johnson added, "No matter how difficult it is for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse to come forward, we hope that they will follow the lead of these six brave women in demanding justice. The self- respect and the progress we make for women everywhere are ultimately the rewards."

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