Fort Hood Soldiers Harbor Doubts About Army’s Accountability Efforts

An independent committee appointed by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy released a scathing report last week finding that Fort Hood leadership allowed a “toxic culture” of sexual assault and harassment to flourish at the troubled Army base in Killeen, Texas.

The committee, which was appointed after public outcry over a string of suicides and homicides, including the high-profile murder of 20-year-old Spc. Vanessa Guillén, confirmed that Fort Hood led the entire Army formation in violent felonies and drug offenses.

Noncommissioned officers who previously spoke with The Intercept out of concern for the safety of soldiers under their command said this week that the committee’s findings highlight what they see as an urgent need to clean up the base’s leadership culture.

“Nothing in the report is a surprise,” said one of the sergeants at Fort Hood, who has served in the Army for nearly a decade. “This has been going on for years.”

During a press conference at the Pentagon on December 8, McCarthy announced that 14 leaders at Fort Hood would be relieved from duty or suspended pending further investigations into Fort Hood’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, which the independent committee called “structurally flawed” and “chronically under-resourced,” and the Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, which the committee found “deficient.”

“I have determined that issues at Fort Hood are directly related to leadership failures. Leadership drives culture. They are responsible for everything that a unit does or does not do,” McCarthy said. “I am gravely disappointed.”

Since January, there have been 28 deaths at Fort Hood, including five homicides and eight suicides. In April, Guillén was bludgeoned to death in an armory room by Spc. Aaron Robinson, according to a criminal complaint. Robinson later killed himself as police attempted to take him into custody. Guillén’s family alleges that the Army badly mishandled the investigation into her murder as well as reports that she was sexually harassed leading up to her death. The committee examined the CID’s handling of Guillén’s case and dozens of others and found the investigators “inexperienced” and “over assigned.”

The committee also determined that Fort Hood took an “ad hoc approach” to the well-being of soldiers who fail to report to duty. Soldiers are often automatically listed as AWOL, with the Army making little attempt to locate them; noncommissioned officers told The Intercept in October that they had few tools to help those under their command who disappeared from base. Guillén was listed as AWOL even though she’d left behind her keys and military ID, and her car was still parked at the barracks.

Altogether, the committee made 70 recommendations. “This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture,” McCarthy said at the Pentagon briefing, where he announced that he would also appoint senior Army officials to lead a “People First Task Force” to further study and implement the recommendations Army-wide.

McCarthy said that the Army would now investigate whether a soldier’s absence was voluntary within the first 48 hours of their failure to appear for duty. If the absence was found to be suspicious, soldiers would be categorized as missing and an investigation would be opened.

“We own the results,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said of the independent review at the press conference. “We are holding leaders accountable and we will fix this.”

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that you need to pack. It’s still bleeding under the Band-Aid.”

But at the sprawling military installation in Central Texas, three noncommissioned officers said that while it was refreshing to hear McCarthy and senior officials take responsibility for the base’s failures, they are skeptical that they can fix a deeply entrenched Army culture in which high-level commanders protect one another’s transgressions and incidents are “kicked under the rug.” (The NCOs interviewed for this story requested that their names be withheld for fear of retribution.)

One Fort Hood staff sergeant said that real accountability was still lacking. The disciplinary actions are administrative, meaning the officials could still retire or leave the Army with an honorable discharge. Some have also questioned why Lt. Gen. Robert “Pat” White, commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, was not disciplined. When asked about White at the press conference, McCarthy said it was because the three-star general was overseas in Iraq when Guillén was killed.

“I feel like at this point, people are being relieved of duty just to show the media and soldiers that heads will roll,” the staff sergeant said.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that you need to pack,” another sergeant said of the Army’s disciplinary actions. “It’s still bleeding under the Band-Aid.”

A supporter of Vanessa Guillén is seen during a rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2020.

Photo: Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto/AP

We Always Have to Watch Our Back

A female sergeant at Fort Hood told The Intercept that it was tragic that a female soldier had to die on post before Army commanders took notice of the frequent harassment and sexual assault. “Things have not been safe here for years,” she said. “We always have to watch our back.”

Some of the report’s most disturbing findings were regarding Fort Hood’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, which was created so that soldiers could report sexual assault or harassment and receive legal and support services. The program is also supposed to provide sexual assault and harassment prevention training, none of which is happening at Fort Hood, the authors of the report said at the Pentagon briefing.

The two women on the independent committee — Carrie Ricci, a retired Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, and Queta Rodriguez, a retired Marine Corps officer — said they interviewed 503 female soldiers individually on the base, including every female soldier in Guillén’s unit in the 3rd Calvary Regiment. “One of the really shocking elements were the number of unreported sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents,” Ricci said.

Ricci said the committee members discovered 93 credible accounts of sexual assault, only 59 of which had been reported. They also found 63 unreported accounts of sexual harassment. “What many of the soldiers at Fort Hood needed was to be believed,” Ricci said. “If any of them see this, I want them to know we believe you.”

“What many of the soldiers at Fort Hood needed was to be believed.”

The committee found the Army’s SHARP program at Fort Hood was sometimes staffed with abusive NCOs as victim advocates, because the position was considered a punishment for career advancement. SHARP personnel often had to use their own funds for training materials and their personal vehicles to drive victims to the hospital. Most soldiers, the committee found, feared retaliation if they reported assault or harassment to their superiors or SHARP program personnel. Worse, many soldiers were unaware that the program even existed.

The female sergeant at Fort Hood, who previously told The Intercept that she was drugged and raped by a more senior officer but never reported it, said the committee’s findings highlight the everyday reality for female soldiers at the base. “I would never go to my senior leadership and tell them how I feel or what happened to me because they would just look at me like I was crazy,” she said. “There’s no use in reporting it.”

The committee said the SHARP program was largely treated as an administrative chore. After Guillén’s case became public, Maj. Gen Scott Efflandt, a two-star general who was in command of Fort Hood while White was overseas, started presiding over SHARP meetings. But his focus was not on prevention, according to the report, but almost solely on reducing a backlog of more than 1,000 active sexual assault cases.

Efflandt was the highest-ranking official relieved from duty by McCarthy, followed by Col. Ralph Overland and Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, who commanded the 3rd Calvary Regiment where Guillén served.

When asked whether the three men would be separated from service or allowed to remain in the military, an Army spokesperson told The Intercept that they had been officially removed from their “assigned duty positions, which is not considered a punishment.” The spokesperson added that “any determination of subsequent actions will be made following the conclusion of the ongoing administrative investigation.”

Due to the committee’s findings about Fort Hood’s “permissive” attitude toward sexual assault and harassment, two leaders of the 1st Cavalry Division, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Kenny, were suspended — but not relieved from duty — until an Army investigation into the unit’s leadership and operation of its SHARP program is concluded.

The two will be “temporarily reassigned to duties commensurate with their rank and experience pending the outcome of the additional investigation,” the Army spokesperson said. “Their immediate chain of command will determine where they will work.” The Army doesn’t have an estimate yet on when the investigation will be completed.

The names of the other nine officers, and the reasons for their administrative punishment, are being withheld due to the Army’s privacy policy protecting lower-ranking officers.

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 14: Military personnel carry the casket of murdered U.S. Army Private First Class Vanessa Guillen to Cesar Chavez High School for her memorial service on August 14, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Guillen, a 20-year-old U.S. Army Specialist, was found dead on June 30 after she had been reportedly missing since April 22. Guillen was allegedly killed by fellow soldier Aaron David Robinson inside the Fort Hood military base.  (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Military personnel carry the casket of Vanessa Guillén to Cesar Chavez High School for her memorial service in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 14, 2020.

Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Safer in Afghanistan

At the Pentagon briefing, Chris Swecker, former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division and chair of the independent committee, said that while crime in the city of Killeen was “relatively low in comparison to other cities outside major Army installations,” there were high-crime areas at Fort Hood. “What we found was that there were no proactive efforts to suppress crime, to address the drug issues, to address violent crimes,” Swecker said.

NCOs at Fort Hood told The Intercept in October that drug use on the base was pervasive and that higher-ranking officers found using drugs were often reassigned to other positions rather than punished, creating a climate of impunity. The committee found that failed drug tests at the base were the highest among all Army posts. “Soldiers made it absolutely clear that illegal drugs are readily available on and off the post,” the report noted.

The committee also reported that “Fort Hood has high suicide attempt and suicide death rates relative to similar posts,” despite the “availability of multiple mental health care venues.” The NCOs who spoke to The Intercept said that soldiers are reluctant to seek help because they fear they’ll be ostracized by their superior officers and unable to advance in their careers.

Investigations averaged 115 to 214 days in duration — by which point many of the victims had already transferred from the base or left the Army entirely.

Altogether, the committee reviewed 53 suicide cases between 2018 and 2020, which revealed that “off-post suicides and deaths were not fully investigated” and investigations into suicide cases on base were incomplete.

While Fort Hood is used as a training ground for newly graduated CID investigators, understaffing, inadequate training, and a lack of forensic equipment means that many crimes are not identified or fully investigated, leaving soldiers and their families feeling unsafe. “Several soldiers stated they felt ‘safer in Afghanistan than at Fort Hood,’” Swecker and other committee members noted.

Investigations took too long, and no one in command was tracking whether they were being done in a timely manner, the committee found. They reviewed CID cases from 2016 to 2020 and noted that investigations averaged 115 to 214 days in duration — by which point many of the victims had already transferred from the base or left the Army entirely.

When Guillén disappeared, Fort Hood had less than half its required allotment of CID investigators, and 92 percent of them were “apprentice agents” with less than a year of experience. During the CID’s investigation, inexperienced agents botched interviews, needed outside help in writing search warrants to obtain evidence, and in two instances supplied incorrect information that “led to fruitless searches and expenditure of scarce manpower,” according to the report. “It was only when outside help was secured from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Marshals, and the FBI that the case was broken.”

FORT HOOD, TX - APRIL 03:  Press gather at Ft. Hood Military Base to hear General Mark Milley, III Corps and Fort Hood Commanding General, give another conference on April 3, 2014 in Fort Hood, Texas. The investigation continues into why Lopez did the shooting on the base. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

Press gather at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas on April 3, 2014.

Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

We Have a Huge Problem

After visiting the Pentagon, the five members of the independent committee testified on December 9 before members of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel, chaired by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who blamed not just Army commanders but the broader military leadership for “years of inexcusable neglect and failure from the top in preventing a toxic culture of sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation.”

While the scope of the report was restricted to recent events at Fort Hood, Speier questioned whether the findings were symptoms of deeper problems in Army leadership. “While the Army is taking steps to address those who are presently in command at Fort Hood, your report suggests that this has gone on since 2014 or maybe before,” she said. “How do we address those leaders who went on to other installations, bases, and commands that were part of the problem?”

“I really think it is up to the Army to determine how far they want to go back with any type of other actions,” said Jonathan Harmon, one of the independent committee members.

“We had a hard time fixing accountability on any one person,” Swecker added. “But what we did see is that there has been a lot of conflict, a lot of fighting going on over the last 20 years. We think the various commands’ focus was on readiness. … They took their eye off the ball of something that was important and never made the connection between readiness and recruitment and the health and safety of their soldiers.”

Speier appeared unsatisfied, pointing out that Congress had spent the last decade and close to $1 billion trying to fix the problem. “At some point we have got to do something differently, because this is not working,” she said. “And there are lives lost because of it. When you have family members who are asking, ‘I don’t know if it makes sense for my son or daughter to go into the military because they fear for their lives, not overseas but here at home,’ we have a huge problem.”

At Fort Hood, the NCOs said it’s hard not to be skeptical after years of neglect. “A lot of people are just kind of shrugging it off,” one sergeant said. “Every correction is an overcorrection in the Army, then after a year, it goes back to the way it was. Nothing really changes — that’s just how the Army works.”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.