(CN) — In the wake of an investigation triggered by the murder of soldier Vanessa Guillen, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced Tuesday that 14 leaders at Texas’ Fort Hood have been fired or suspended from their positions.
“The murder of Guillen shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems,” McCarthy said at a news conference at the Pentagon.
Specialist Guillen’s murder this spring by Specialist Aaron Robinson, who bludgeoned her to death with a hammer in an armory room on base in April, prompted the Army to form the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, comprised of five civilians, three of whom are former Army officers.
McCarthy said the Army has formed the People First Task Force, led by three high-ranking Army officers, that will analyze the 70 reforms the committee recommended in its 136-page report and start implementing all of them by March 2021, and they won’t be limited to Fort Hood.
“While the independent review focused on the command climate and culture at Fort Hood, the findings contained in the committee’s report impact the entire Army of more than 1 million soldiers, 247,000 civilians and their families,” McCarthy said.
Committee members said Tuesday they had interviewed 647 soldiers at Fort Hood, including 503 women, over their 103-day investigation that began July 30.
The women said they were hesitant to speak out about sexual harassment on the base in Killeen, Texas, out of fear of ostracism and retaliation in the form of career-derailing work assignments.
They also feared their allegations would not remain confidential and lost faith in the process because sexual harassment investigations took so long to complete, as the base was staffed by inexperienced Army Criminal Investigation Command apprentices, most of whom rotated out of their assignments at the base very quickly and didn’t have investigative tools common at civilian law enforcement agencies such as cellphone tracking and data-extraction technology, according to the committee members.
Guillen is one of 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood who have died this year due to suicide, homicide or accidents, according to the Associated Press.
Seventy miles north of Austin, the base takes up 214,000 acres and is the workplace of nearly 40,000 soldiers.
Guillen did not show up for her unit’s roll call the morning of April 23 and was reported missing, though her car keys, barracks room key and ID card were found on base.
The case stagnated for two months while Guillen’s family and their attorney accused the Army of not being transparent with them about its investigation, speculating a superior Guillen had told them was sexually harassing her was involved in her disappearance.
Human remains found June 30 near the Leon River in Bell County were identified as Guillen’s.
Early the next morning, Robinson shot himself on a street in Killeen as police moved in to arrest him.
Robinson’s girlfriend Cecily Aguilar was arrested July 1 after she reportedly told the FBI she helped Robinson dispose of Guillen’s body. Aguilar is in federal custody set for trial on Jan. 19 on two counts of tampering with a victim.
The review committee said Tuesday the Army’s handling of Guillen’s disappearance revealed it did not have any protocols on how to proceed when soldiers failed to report for muster, or daily roll calls.
Squad and platoon leaders said in interviews with the committee they didn’t have time to get to know their soldiers, which combined with the Covid-19 pandemic and lack of protocol led to a startling day-to-day lack of accountability.
“The accountability for soldiers at the first muster, or the various musters during the day had slipped particularly during Covid,” said committee chair Chris Swecker, an attorney and former FBI agent. “And part of that is a function of the NCOs [non-commissioned officers] again not necessarily knowing enough about their charges, their soldiers under their supervision to know what was normal and what was not in terms of not reporting.”
The Army now has a missing-persons protocol.
“And it’s a very good one, it starts at hour one,” Swecker said. “Any missing persons case the first 24 hours is extremely critical. You can’t get started 24 hours into it, you have to start on hour one and hour two.”
Committee member Carrie Ricci, a retired JAG officer who served three years at Fort Hood, said she felt a sense of catharsis from female soldiers telling her in interviews about being sexually assaulted and harassed by their male colleagues.
“One of the things the soldiers at Fort Hood, many of them, needed was to be believed and that was what we did. We listened,” said Ricci, associate general counsel at the Agriculture Department.
An unresolved element of Guillen’s case is the identity of the man she said was sexually harassing her before she disappeared. The Army has insisted it was not Robinson.
A separate Army investigation is looking into Guillen’s sexual harassment claims, Swecker said at Tuesday’s news conference, declining to discuss details but backing the Army’s claims.
“I will say this there is a misunderstanding on one part of that. CID [Criminal Investigation Division] did not find any evidence Specialist Robinson sexually harassed Vanessa Guillen and I’ll leave it at that,” Swecker said.
Asked how much Guillen’s family was involved in its investigation, committee member Jack White, a partner at Fluet Huber + Hoang and retired Army officer, said they had talked for hours with Guillen’s parents and her sisters.
“We wanted to hear from them about what their experience was when their daughter was missing…what were there interactions with the [Fort Hood] command, all of that is a component of culture,” White said.
He said he believes Guillen’s mother “is pleased progress is being made.”