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Army to encourage urgency in finding soldiers after high-profile disappearances

Activists held signs depicting Spc. Vanessa Guillen at a rally Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Guillen's family said Vanessa, who was murdered at Fort Hood in April, told them she was being sexually harassed but was too afraid to report it.

NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES

By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 15, 2020

The Army is planning to introduce a policy that would provide more urgency in finding missing soldiers, top leaders said, following a row of high-profile disappearances at Fort Hood that left families frustrated over the depth and speed of search efforts.

Commanders have not prioritized searching for soldiers missing from the ranks, a duty status known as absent without leave, Army officials have previously said, and they currently do not proactively search for deserters.

Experts have said Army culture breeds belief that missing soldiers are malingerers or cowards, which makes finding them a low priority. But recent high-profile disappearances and deaths of soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas have led Army officials to reexamine how that process works.

In the forthcoming policy on AWOL soldiers, the Army "will consider them missing and take immediate action to find them," according to a memo signed Tuesday by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston.

The policy is meant to align with broader efforts by the Army to refocus care of soldiers following years of emphasis on deployments and training, according to an Army official with knowledge of the changes. That in turn may help leaders detect problems within the ranks, the official said.

"We do not always know why people have not showed up to formation," the official said, declining to provide a name to discuss sensitive personnel issues. "Until we know why, we have to make sure it's something that is taken seriously."

Commanders still have discretion over how fast and deep searches for missing soldiers can go, such as calling family members or interviewing fellow soldiers about potential problems, the official said. The changes are meant to encourage leaders to be more proactive.

One soldier missing from Fort Hood, Army Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, was declared a deserter a month after he went missing in August 2019. His remains were found in a shallow grave outside the base months later, with investigators suspecting foul play.

His mother, Kimberly Wedel, blasted the Army for what she described as a callous indifference to finding her son. She said in an interview Wednesday that she welcomed the policy change.

"I'm glad they're taking it more seriously, and not writing off soldiers," Wedel said. "Mix that in with knowing their soldiers better, I can't begin to guess how many lives they may save."

A soldier who doesn't report for duty in 30 days is automatically designated a deserter, the Army said, even if commanders don't have evidence of where the soldier is, or if the soldier is experiencing physical or mental duress. Another soldier then takes their place in the unit.

Concerns similar to Wedel's were raised by the family of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, another soldier who went missing in April. Investigators found that another soldier killed her on Fort Hood property and disposed of her remains outside the installation with an alleged accomplice. The soldier who killed her took his own life as officers closed in.

The Guillén family said officials did not take her disappearance seriously amid their allegations that she was sexually harassed.

Those cases follow a years-long effort by families to transform the way the Army looks for missing soldiers.

Army Pfc. Dakota Stump went missing from Fort Hood in October 2016, leading officials to declare him AWOL. Army officials suspected he shirked duty when his cellphone pinged in Indiana, but he was found dead in a car wreck at the installation three months later. His mother, Patrice Wise, advocated for laws to improve sharing information with families launch investigations before declaring soldiers AWOL.

Kayla Williams, a former Army noncommissioned officer, said leaders often assume the worst of soldiers if they face challenges, including alcohol or mental health problems and even pregnancy, leading to many to wave off missing soldiers as problems they no longer need to handle.

But she was cautiously optimistic over the rule change.

"Shifting the focus to emphasize people as individuals are important, and the Army needs them to accomplish the mission, said Williams, now the director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

"Sometime it takes the embarrassment of being held up to a microscope in the public eye to drive necessary change," she said.