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RETIRED OFFICER DECRIES 'NIT-PICKING' IN ARMY SEX CASE HEARINGS

The woman who paved the way for a sexual harassment case against the Army's top enlisted soldier bridled at what she called nit-picking cross-examination during a military hearing Saturday.

After more than an hour of tense questioning by a military attorney for Sgt. Maj. of the Army Gene McKinney, retired Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster exploded when asked for the exact sequence of events after alleged sexual misconduct in Hawaii last year.

"What disturbs me is that this happened," Ms. Hoster said, her voice rising in exasperation. "And if I can't recall minute by minute, step by step when I told somebody -- did I tell person A first or person B second, whatever -- that to me is just nit-picking.

"This happened and I talked to these people. . . . It happened to me, sir; I'm the victim. And I'm feeling this."

Ms. Hoster was the first of five military women to accuse McKinney, 46, of sexual misconduct. He has denied all charges, and the current hearing is to determine whether he will face court-martial.

McKinney's military attorney, Lt. Col. Montgomery Forrester, asked pointed questions about Ms. Hoster's relationship with Command Sgt. Maj. Zulma Santiago, currently on leave from her post at Camp Carroll in South Korea. Ms. Hoster described Sgt. Maj. Santiago as her landlord, friend and mentor.

Under questioning, Ms. Hoster acknowledged that she and Sgt. Maj. Santiago purchased property in New Mexico together and she telephoned her Friday after her first day of testimony at the hearing.

Spectators were cleared from the hearing room after Forrester asked her: "Did you exchange personal property with her, like rings? Held hands in public?"

After about two hours of closed-door debate, cross-examination resumed but did not continue along this line. Ms. Hoster was then released as a witness, but she may be recalled.

Ms. Hoster, as a civilian, was testifying voluntarily but reluctantly after receiving assurances that defense attorneys would be limited in questioning her about her personal life.

She first complained to the Army officially earlier this year.

She has alleged that on a business trip to Hawaii in April 1996, McKinney came to her hotel room, kissed her, lifted her off her feet and at one point said, "I could take you right here, right now." Ms. Hoster said she understood that to mean he could have had her sexually.

Ms. Hoster, who was on McKinney's staff, said she told him to leave her room and go to his wife, who was in another hotel room. McKinney eventually left, Ms. Hoster said.

In an earlier incident, Ms. Hoster alleged McKinney "wrestled" with her on a couch at a guest house at Fort Bragg, N.C., and made such comments as "You just need a good man" at other times.

Ms. Hoster's testimony is important, because she was the first to accuse McKinney. She has said that she would not have lodged a formal complaint against him if he had not accepted a position on an Army panel investigating allegations of sexual misconduct.

Forrester focused cross-examination of Ms. Hoster on issues of credibility, repeatedly questioning her memory of events after the alleged Hawaii incident, comparing her testimony with language in her official complaint. Forrester also has asked her about dozens of former military colleagues, many of whom are expected to testify.

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