Army secretary pledges "full, independent review" in Vanessa Guillen case

"He did assure me that all their findings will be available to Congress," said Rep. Sylvia García about the meeting with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.
Image: Memorial Set Up In Austin For Murdered Fort Hood Soldier Vanessa Guillen
People pay respects at a mural of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier based at nearby Fort Hood in Austin, Texas on July 6, 2020.Sergio Flores / Getty Images

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By Suzanne Gamboa

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy pledged Friday to recommend to the secretary of the Department of Defense that the agency's inspector general do a "full, independent" review of the slaying of Spec. Vanessa Guillen, according to Latino lawmakers and advocates who met with him.

"It will be up to the secretary to make that decision and make sure it does its job," said Rep. Sylvia García, D-Texas, following the meeting that also included officials from the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the nation's oldest Latino civil rights group.

McCarthy announced in a news release that he also has ordered the creation of a commission to do an "independent, comprehensive review of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood," an Army post in Central Texas, as well as of the surrounding military community.

The Army stated the commission's purpose will be to determine whether Fort Hood's command climate and culture and the surrounding military community "reflects the Army values, including respect, inclusiveness, and workplaces free from sexual harassment."

The Army confirmed on July 6 that Guillen's remains were found after a search by military officials that took on urgency and intensity under pressure from family members and public protesters. Guillen's family and community members complained that the Army had done little to investigate her death after she was last seen on April 22.

Her death and reports from her family that she had complained to them about sexual harassment by a military colleague have led to an outcry from women, many who served or are serving in the military, about their own experiences with sexual harassment, assault and abuse and how their military superiors handle them.

Many of those stories have been posted on social media under #IAmVanessaGuillen.

"I think this is a step in the right direction; he did assure me that all their findings will be available to Congress," García said.

McCarthy's news release stated that the Army will hire four civilian consultants to form a panel and spend five to 10 days at Fort Hood. They'll review historical data, such as command climate surveys, inspector general reports, criminal/military justice reports and sexual harassment and sexual assault response program statistics. They also will interview members of the military and Fort Hood community, it stated.

He named Army Undersecretary James Pherson and Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin to co-chair a team that will consider the panel's recommendations and can make changes.

Women complained "and nothing happened," say advocates

Domingo Garcia, LULAC's president, said they expressed in the meeting the message that thousands of women have come forward under #IAmVanessa Guillen to say "I was abused, I was raped, I complained, I tried to bring it up and nothing happened."

"We believe these cases have exposed a systematic problem within the Army and other branches of the military," Domingo García said.

He said McCarthy asked LULAC to provide the names of Latinos and Latinas who also can serve on the commission on sexual harassment and abuse he's forming.

"We hope that this commission will remedy the systematic sexual harassment and abuse of women in the military," García said. "When a woman puts on the uniform and agrees to serve our country and takes that oath, she should be treated equally to the men in the Army and when they are not and they are abused and their cries for help are not heard then there is a definite problem we have to deal with."

Federal prosecutors have accused Cecily Aguilar of Killeen with helping to mutilate and dispose of Guillen's body and charged her in the case. Aguilar told authorities that another soldier, identified as Spec. Aaron Robinson, 20, hit Guillen on the head with a hammer at Fort Hood on April 22, according to a criminal complaint.

Aguilar, the estranged wife of another soldier, helped Robinson get rid of Guillen's body at a remote site near Fort Hood. Robinson shot and killed himself as officials were about to arrest him.

García, the congresswoman, began working on behalf of the Guillen family as they grew frustrated with what they described as a slow or disinterested response from the military after she disappeared. The Guillen family lives in Houston.

Domingo García said other issues were raised at the meeting, including the push to rename Fort Hood after Medal of Honor winner Roy Benavidez. They also spoke about the deportations of military veterans and the need for more Latinos in the upper ranks of the military.

The group discussed the death of Pfc. Gregory Morales, whose remains were found during the search for Guillen. He was last heard from on Aug. 20, 2019, and the Army had declared him a deserter. The Army has said it now suspects foul play in his death.

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