The U.S. Army relieved from duty or suspended 14 officers and enlisted soldiers a t Fort Hood, Texas, on Tuesday in the wake of the murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen which highlighted systemic sexual abuse in military ranks, according to media reports.
The purge of soldiers was announced along with the publication of the findings of a 152-page independent review panel to assess the command culture at Fort Hood that contributed to the Guillen tragedy.
Two generals are among those who will be removed from their posts, including Major General Scott Efflandt, who was in charge of the base earlier this year at the time of Guillén's murder.
The Secretary of the Army, Ryan McCarthy, accepted the report and said that it had helped to identify "things that we have not seen previously".
He added that “the challenges at Fort Hood forced us to take a critical look at our systems, our policies, and ourselves ... This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture."
The five members of the panel said they conduct 647 interviews, including with 503 female soldiers, and spent 19-days at Fort Hood, collecting thousands of pages of documents. "What we found was a feat of retaliation, stigmatism, ostracism," said one of the panel members, Chris Swecker, an attorney and former assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "The confidentiality of the reporting process was also compromised," he added.
The panel made nine findings and 70 recommendations. Among them, Swecker said it found that the command at Fort Hood failed to properly manage the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program (SHARP) "at the expense of the health and wellbeing of all soldiers, especially women."
Crimes went "unaddressed" and the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) on the base suffered from "various inefficiencies," he added.
The panel found that "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 to keep track of their subordinates."
The panel interviewed a number of women from Vanesa Guillen’s unit at Fort Hood and discovered a “shocking number of unreported cases of sexual harassment and assault”, said another member of the panel, Queta Rodriguez, a former U.S. Marine who works with a Texas nonprofit group that helps veterans transition into civilian careers.
She said the panel found 93 credible accounts of sexual assault, of which only 59 were reported. There were also 217 unreported accounts of sexual harassment.
"We believe you"
Panel member Carrie Ricci, a retired Lt Colonel in the Army, said the biggest lesson she learned from conducting interviews was that the victims “needed to be believed.”
Speaking directly to the victims, she told the press conference; “If any of them see this, I want them to know we believe you,” she said.
The family of Vanessa Guillen responded to the report in a statement to Univision: "We support the decision to take swift action to terminate and suspend several people in leadership who failed to protect our soldiers," the family's lawyer Natalie Khawam. "This is a step in the right direction and highlights the fact that Army Chief of Staff Gen James McConville is taking accountability, overhauling Fort Hood, and implementing new policies and procedures so what happened to Vanessa Guillen never happens again."
The report was also praised by some of the groups advocating for abused soldiers. “From prevention to investigations to protection to accountability, this is a damning inside look at Fort Hood's callous disregard to its soldiers' well-being,” said Col. Don Christensen (ret.), the former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of Protect Our Defenders.
“Sadly, I don't believe this climate is unique to Ft. Hood or the Army. This report should leave no doubt that it is time to finally act on fundamental reform of the military justice system,” he added.
Critics pointed out that none of the punished soldiers were discharged from the military, and the names of some of them were kept secret. In some cases, the punishments, or 'administrative actions' could lead to further investigations resulting in a military discharge.
“In light of these findings, I still have many concerns. This independent panel did not determine who in the command structure was criminally negligent in Vanessa Guillen’s case, but I hope all who are responsible will be held accountable," said U.S. Rep Sylvia Garcia, a Texas Democrat.
"The panel is calling for strengthening the SHARP program; however, it does little to address the need for an independent and confidential way to report sexual violence as proposed in the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act," she added. Garcia was referring to a bill in Congress that seeks to make sexual harassment a crime within the military justice system and move prosecution decisions of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases out of the chain of command.
The death of Vanessa Guillen
Guillen, 20, was bludgeoned to death at Fort Hood by Specialist Aaron Robinson, who killed himself on July 1 as police were trying to take him into custody. Guillen was missing for more than two months before her remains were found. Her family has said Robinson sexually harassed her, though the Army has said there is no evidence supporting that claim.
So far this year, 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood have died due to suicide, homicide or accidents, compared with 32 last year and 24 in 2018.
The Guillen family has expressed doubt about the Pentagon’s willingness to address the issues. The family is also upset after learning in recent days that Congress will not vote this year on the ‘ I Am Vanessa Guillen Act’ which was introduced in September with bipartisan support.
Congressional leaders say the bill was delayed due to other major issues that took priority, including debate over a still unresolved covid-19 relief package.
However, the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act will be reintroduced in the next Congress and will be put to a vote quickly, according to the office of one of the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat.
Victim advocates are hopeful that president-elect Joe Biden will put his weight behind the bill. In a statement last week to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Biden said: "As Commander-in-Chief I will make it a priority at the highest levels to end the scourge of sexual violence and harassment against women service members."