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14 Fort Hood leaders disciplined as probe finds 'permissive environment for sexual assault' at the Army base

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said 14 leaders at Fort Hood have been suspended or relieved from their positions.
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 file

An independent review found that the command climate at the Fort Hood military base in Texas created a "permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment," according to a report the Army released Tuesday.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Tuesday that 14 leaders at Fort Hood have been suspended or relieved from their positions.

The report comes after the disappearance and killing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén earlier this year.

The disciplined leaders include Maj. Gen. Scott L. Efflandt, who was the acting Fort Hood commander at the time of Guillén’s death. Efflandt, Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and command sergeant major, were all relieved from their positions.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, 1st Cavalry Division commanding general and command sergeant major, have been suspended. The names of the battalion level and below commanders and leaders who received administrative action were not released.

Mayra Guillén, Vanessa's older sister, said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that they were somewhat satisfied by the removal of certain military officials from their positions, especially those tasked with providing answers to the family. Lupe Guillén, Vanessa's younger sister, shared a similar sentiment.

"Efflandt deserved it because he ignored us every single time that passed by, Overland he was so disrespectful throughout this process. And I'm sorry to say this, which I am not the person to say this, but you deserve it," Lupe Guillén said at the press conference.

McCarthy appointed a five-member civilian panel in July to conduct an independent review looking into Fort Hood's command climate and culture after Guillén's disappearance. Guillén's family said she had told relatives and colleagues at Fort Hood that she had been sexually harassed at the base.

While officials at the time said they had no credible information or reports that Guillén was sexually assaulted, the allegations prompted many service members to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on social media using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen.

The independent review panel also found that the Army's Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP) had not achieved its mandate to curb sexual assault and harassment due to structural failures as well as a command climate that failed to instill the program's core values below the brigade level, subsequently degrading confidence in the program, according to the report.

Chris Swecker, Jonathan Harmon, Carrie Ricci, Queta Rodriguez and Jack White visited Fort Hood for 19 days between August and September and conducted 80 group interviews, which encompassed over 1,800 soldiers, as well as 647 individual interviews as part of the independent investigation.

All members of the review committee have a combined 75 years of experience as active-duty military and law-enforcement personnel with broad expertise in organizational dynamics, the law, and government investigations.

Of the 647 individual interviews, 503 were female soldiers, Swecker, the committee's chairman, said Tuesday. "What we found was that there was a fear of retaliation, all forms of retaliation, stigmatism, ostracism, derailing a career and work assignments," he said.

"One of the things that the soldiers at Fort Hood, what many of them needed was to be believed, and that's what we did. We listened to them," said Ricci, a panel member who is a former officer with the Judge Advocate General's Corps and worked at Fort Hood for three years. "If any of them see this, I want them to know we believe you."

Fort Hood has some of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army, according to McCarthy. A report from the Defense Department in 2018 found that sexual assault in the military had increased over the previous two years.

Independent review committee member Queta Rodríguez said the panel "made a very concerted effort" to interview women in specific units, particularly the unit that Guillén belonged to, and discovered a "really shocking" number of unreported sexual assault and harassment allegations.

After their interviews with female soldiers, the committee identified 93 credible accounts of sexual assault, but only 59 of them were reported, according to the report. The committee also identified 135 credible instances of sexual harassment, but only 72 of them were reported. "Some of the accounts of unreported sexual assault were extremely serious and had significant impact on the victim’s health and well-being," the report said.

In the cases that were reported, soldiers experienced "a founded fear that the confidentiality of the reporting process would be compromised," said Swecker, adding that there was also "a lack of any appreciation for the results or the response because it took so long to get an adjudication. People never saw the adjudication, so they lost faith."

Guillén, 20, was last seen alive on April 22 at Fort Hood. Her dismembered remains were found near the base two months later. When police moved in to arrest Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, in connection with her disappearance and death, he shot and killed himself, authorities said in early July. Shortly afterward, a woman identified as Robinson's girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, 22, was arrested on federal charges of tampering with evidence, accused of having helped Robinson dispose of Guillén's body. Aguilar, who pleaded not guilty, is due in court on Jan. 19.

"We've been fighting since April 22," Gloria Guillén, Vanessa's mother, said in Spanish. "What we've done today is just one step. We need to do much more. When I spoke to Secretary McCarthy, I told him I was glad for the removals, but I want everyone responsible to go to jail and I want the truth to be discovered."

As part of the command climate, the issues of crime and Criminal Investigation Division (CID) operations were also examined by the independent review panel. CID took over Guillén's case after she was reported missing.

The panel found that CID and the Directorate of Emergency Services contributed "very little analysis, feedback and general situational awareness to the command" in order to fulfill their mandate to help reduce crime at the military base.

"The deficient climate also extended into the missing Soldier scenarios, where no one recognized the slippage in accountability procedures and unwillingness or lack of ability of non- commissioned officers (NCOs) to keep track of their subordinates," the report said.

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Based on the findings outlined in the independent review, the panel issued 70 recommendations to change the culture at Fort Hood. McCarthy accepted all 70 recommendations Tuesday and announced the creation of a new Army policy on how to better handle cases of missing soldiers as well as the "People First Task Force." The new policy and task force seek to promote changes to the staffing, structure and implementation of the SHARP program at Fort Hood, and possibly beyond, as well as address "deeply dysfunctional norms" and regain soldiers’ trust.

"The problems that we saw are cultural and everybody is involved in culture, from the highest levels to the one-on-one interaction between the squad leader and his or her squad member," said White, a panel member who previously served as a law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court after graduating from West Point and serving as an active Army officer and in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Natalie Khawam, an attorney for Guillen's family, said they will continue to urge Congress to pass legislation in Vanessa Guillen's name that seeks to improve the Department of Defense's response to sex-related offenses, among other offenses, by having independent investigators look into such allegations.

"We cannot afford to lose another Vanessa, and the only way to fix that is through legislation," Khawam said.