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Fourteen U.S. Army leaders, including commanders and other leaders at Fort Hood, have been fired or suspended in an effort to correct a yearslong culture of sexual assault and a pattern of violence at the base, Army officials said Tuesday.
That climate — which failed to prioritize the health and wellbeing of soldiers, particularly female soldiers — was detailed in a damning 150-page report released Tuesday after a year of startling and tragic deaths at the Central Texas installation.
Among those relieved was Maj. Gen. Scott L. Efflandt, who was in charge of the base earlier this year when Spc. Vanessa Guillén went missing. Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp were also relieved.
Two other leaders, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, have been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into command climate and the responses to sexual harassment and assault.
The Army has also opened a separate investigation into resourcing, policies and procedures of the 6th Military Police Group, the division of the Criminal Investigation Command that conducts felony-level criminal investigations at Fort Hood.
The shake-ups come in response to an independent review of the base’s command climate and culture, which Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy launched in mid-July amid increasing pressure from Guillén's family, Congress and advocacy groups.
Guillén disappeared in April, and her body was found near the Leon River in July. The soldier suspected of killing Guillén, Spc. Aaron Robinson, killed himself as police tried to arrest him. Guillén was the victim of sexual harassment, her sister said, but she didn’t report the sexual harassment out of fear of retaliation.
McCarthy and other Army leaders announced Tuesday that as a result of the investigation, they have established a new policy on missing soldiers. They have also launched a new group, the People First Task Force, which will be responsible for analyzing the problems discovered at Fort Hood and reevaluating Army policy.
“We know in the Army that we are not perfect, but what makes us the greatest Army in the world is that we recognize where we must change. We acknowledge our issues and we fix them,” Gen. James McConville, chief of staff to the army, said at a Tuesday press conference. “Prior to coming here, I talked to Mrs. Guillén, Vanessa’s mother, and I told her that we are going to fix these issues and change the culture that allowed them to happen. I told her we must and will provide a safe and secure environment for American sons and daughters that serve in the Army.”
Army officials on Tuesday also announced a new policy on missing soldiers. It includes a new status — “absent-unknown” — with which missing soldiers will be tagged for the first 48 hours they are missing. Soldiers will no longer be considered AWOL — absent without leave — unless commanders determine the absence is voluntary. If they cannot show the absence is voluntary, commanders will classify the individual as “missing” and dispatch a liaison officer to update the soldier’s family while military personnel try to locate the missing soldier.
The new policy is intended to ensure the military takes immediate action to find missing personnel.
McCarthy acknowledged during a press briefing in August that the base had “the most cases for sexual assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation of the U.S. Army.”
Five civilians, forming the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, undertook a massive investigation into culture on the base, conducting more than 2,500 interviews at the base and convening community meetings. Out of that effort, they produced a report that includes nine major findings and 70 recommendations.
In the report, which spans more than 150 pages, the investigators found that the leadership climate at Fort Hood was “ineffective, to the extent that there was a permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment.” It also identified serious deficiencies with the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program. Investigators found “strong evidence” that sexual harassment and assault were underreported on the base, that the prevention program had structural flaws and that its adjudication process degrades confidence.
The civilian investigators also found that Fort Hood’s protocols “were inadequate to account for, to safeguard and to determine the whereabouts of missing Soldiers in the hours immediately after they went missing.” In some cases, they said, little effort was made to check whether an absent soldier was missing under suspicious circumstances. The report identifies one soldier who was reported AWOL on Aug. 30, 2016; declared a deserter on Sept. 27, 2016; and then found dead on Oct. 6, 2016.
At Fort Hood, investigators found, emergency officials did not conduct initial investigations until a soldier was missing for over 24 hours. That was the case when Guillén went missing, even though there were immediate indications that her absence was suspicious. Her ID, car keys and other items were found in an arms room where she had been working, but an investigation did not begin immediately.
The committee issued dozens of recommendations about how the Army can improve the climate at Fort Hood, including by restructuring the program designed to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault, and professionalizing its workforce.
It also said that commanding officers should know their soldiers well enough to ensure their health and safety, including by conducting regular welfare checks. The committee also emphasized that officials must do more during the “critical first 24 hours” when a soldier is absent to initiate an early investigation and determine why the person may be missing.
To improve Fort Hood, the committee reports, Army leadership must prioritize the wellbeing of its officers.
“Military readiness became paramount over all other responsibilities, without fully appreciating that integrity and respect between and among Soldiers is a critical component of military readiness,” the investigators wrote. “Over the years, those in command at Fort Hood, however, failed to make the connection between the health and safety of the Soldiers and mission readiness. This paradigm of benign neglect was allowed to take root over time at Fort Hood, at the expense of Soldiers, particularly females in combat units.”
Military leaders promised that the report would prompt self-reflection.
“This is not about metrics, but about possessing the ability to have the human decency to show compassion for our teammates and to look out for the best interest of our soldiers,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture.”
Two congressional subcommittees are conducting a separate investigation into how Fort Hood’s leadership has responded to a series of deaths and instances of sexual harassment and abuse.
The issue is set for a hearing before Congress on Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said she still has “many concerns” after reading the report, including that the panel didn’t determine which leaders were “criminally negligent” in the Guillén case. Earlier this year, Garcia introduced the “I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020,” which would create a confidential reporting system for sexual harassment in the military.
Garcia said she plans “to ask the Army on how they will get this done for our troops” at a Wednesday congressional hearing.
“The Army and the U.S. military have a lot of work to do to regain the trust of our service members, their families and the American public,” Garcia said. “They cannot afford to wait another decade before anything changes.”
Lupe Guillén, Vanessa Guillén’s sister, said at a press conference Tuesday that the report’s findings are a step in the right direction, but she wants to see congressional action.
“We won’t be satisfied until the legislation passes and we get actual answers, accountability and justice for Vanessa Guillén,” she said.
Kelsey Carolan contributed reporting.