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Army to release report Tuesday on Fort Hood command climate following a series of deaths this year

ROSE L. THAYER/STARS AND STRIPES

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas — Army officials are expected Tuesday to release the results of a report from a civilian-led committee’s investigation of Fort Hood that could shed light on the failings of the service’s sexual assault response program amid a series of highly publicized deaths this year at the base.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy appointed the five-member committee in July and its investigation of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood was one of several conducted at the central Texas Army base following the disappearance and death there of Spc. Vanessa Guillen.

After a preliminary review of the committee’s findings, McCarthy said last month that he believes the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, “hasn’t achieved its mandate to eliminate sexual assaults and sexual harassment by creating a climate that respects the dignity of every member of the Army family.”

The release of the findings Tuesday will also include an action plan to address the report’s recommendations.

“It is clear we have significant work to do to regain our soldiers’ trust in our [SHARP] program,” McCarthy said. “Leaders, regardless of rank, are accountable for what happens in their units and must have the courage to speak up and intervene when they recognize actions that bring harm to our soldiers and to the integrity of our institution. If we do not have the trust of America — nothing else matters.”

Tasked with examining Fort Hood and the surrounding military community to determine whether it reflects the Army’s commitment to safety, respect, inclusiveness, diversity and freedom from sexual harassment, the committee conducted an in-person visit to the base in August and filed its report at the end of October.

Guillen, 20, went missing from Fort Hood on April 22 while working in an arms room with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s engineer squadron. Her remains were found June 30 alongside a river about 30 miles from the base.

Spc. Aaron Robinson, another soldier in Guillen’s squadron, killed her with a hammer, then moved her body, according to court documents. A second suspect, Cecily Aguilar, is in federal custody and accused of conspiracy to tamper with evidence in the case. Robinson shot himself dead July 1 when approached by civilian law enforcement in Killeen, the town just outside Fort Hood.

Understanding why

During a visit to Fort Hood in August, McCarthy spoke about the committee as a way “to understand the root causes associated” with the violence, felonies and murders that have occurred at the base and to “better understand why this is happening at this installation.”

Since March, the deaths of five soldiers assigned to the Army base have been ruled homicides. While Guillen was killed on base, the other four soldiers were found dead in nearby cities.

McCarthy also noted in his visit that the number of cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and murder at Fort Hood are the highest among the entire Army formation.

The five committee members — Chris Swecker, Jonathan Harmon, Carrie Ricci, Queta Rodriguez and Jack White — are expected to discuss their findings during a Tuesday news conference at the Pentagon following remarks from the McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston.

Following the Pentagon’s event, Lt. Gen. Pat White, commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, will host a news conference at the base to discuss the report as well as his “People First” training initiative. He is also expected to address about 1,500 soldiers at the base’s outdoor football stadium later in the afternoon.

White, who returned from a yearlong deployment to the Middle East in October, said some of the findings might need to be dealt with by commanders above him, but he pledged to take on any recommendations that he could.

“It takes everybody to get this right,” he has said.

Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt served as the base commander in White’s absence. He was supposed to move to Fort Bliss, Texas, during the summer and serve as commander of the 1st Armored Division. But he was replaced and remains at Fort Hood awaiting the results of a second investigation — one conducted by Army Forces Command. That investigation, known as a 15-6, is intended to review how Fort Hood’s chain of command managed all aspects of Guillen’s case. A release date for its findings has not been announced.

Meanwhile, White has already identified a trust issue between soldiers and leaders at the base and he began in October to conduct training events to rebuild those relationships. He’s mandated the training, called Operation People First, not just at Fort Hood, but all bases under command of III Corps.

Congressional involvement

The public will hear from the committee members again Wednesday during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subpanel on military personnel.

Swecker served as the lead of the Army committee and was the only nonveteran in the group. He is a lawyer and former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. He has conducted similar independent reviews for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the Vogel Nuclear Power Plant and the Winston Salem Police Department, according to an Army news release.

The other four members are veterans, who served as officers in the Army and Marine Corps. They have a combined 75 years of experience as active-duty military and law-enforcement personnel and have expertise with the law and government investigations, according to the Army. They have worked on discrimination claims, civil matters, veterans' issues, whistleblower cases and law-enforcement investigations, among others.

Harmon is a trial lawyer whose business litigation practice spans complex commercial, fraud, class-action and employment issues. Ricci is an associate general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former assistant general counsel for the Department of Defense Education Activity. Rodriguez is a regional director of FourBlock, a nonprofit organization for veterans. White is a lawyer with expertise in government investigations, discrimination claims, constitutional matters, securities claims, white collar matters, bankruptcies and other civil matters.

The House subpanel announced in September it is also investigating the conditions at Fort Hood in partnership with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s subpanel on national security. That investigation will look closer not only at Guillen’s death, but also at the deaths of six other soldiers.

“Where appropriate, we intend to seek justice on behalf of those in uniform, and their families, who may have been failed by a military system and culture that was ultimately responsible for their care and protection,” the chairpersons of the House subpanels wrote in September in a letter to the Pentagon.

Nearly 30 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood have died this year, which is in line with numbers from previous years, according to the Army. However, the number of homicides in 2020 is more than double the previous four years combined.

About 36,500 soldiers are assigned to Fort Hood, which is located in central Texas about 80 miles north of Austin. III Corps oversees base operations and its larger units include the 1st Cavalry Division, the 13th Sustainment Command and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori