Beyond Fort Hood: How Fort Bliss has taken lessons from its neighbor to combat sexual assault
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 19, 2021
FORT BLISS, Texas — Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe knew on his first full day on the job in September that he had to overhaul how the base handled sexual assault and harassment cases.
As the commander of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss in Texas, he attended a meeting to review all open cases among the base’s 25,000 soldiers. He soon realized that the time allotted for the meeting was nowhere near enough.
By the next meeting, Bernabe said he began his campaign to show leaders of the base’s 11 brigade-sized headquarters “the extent of the problem.”
In December, the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee released a report exposing how a fellow Texas base had bred a climate and culture “permissive” of sexual assault and harassment. It included examples of failed expectations and provided 70 recommendations on how to turn things around.
Created in response to the killing of Spc. Vanessa Guillen by another soldier at Fort Hood, the committee found that it was often the inaction of leaders or poor implementation at the base that led to lapses in the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP.
While the Fort Hood report highlighted how the SHARP program is failing at that base, the majority of the recommendations reach across the Army.
For Bernabe, who had just taken over the slightly smaller installation about 570 miles west, the report created a starting point to understand the problems at Fort Bliss and a blueprint toward “positive disruption” of the status quo. He saw changes he could make without waiting for intervention from above.
“As we all read the report, we realized that we’ve got to be a little bit more deliberate about tackling this corrosive behavior of sexual harassment, sexual assault,” he said.
He ordered all leaders through the company level read the Fort Hood report, “assuming that everything applies in some degree” to Fort Bliss. Then he asked them to identify anything mentioned in the report that they didn’t know — and figure out how it pertained to their units.
Bernabe launched Operation Ironclad, a nod to the division’s nickname as the “Iron Division,” and in about three months, 13 tasks have been completed, most aimed at caring for soldiers after they report an assault.
He started with problems he could easily resolve on his own. The report found that some Fort Hood SHARP personnel didn’t always have access to a vehicle to take victims to the hospital, and some lacked computer and internet access in their offices.
Bernabe called in the Fort Bliss SHARP personnel and asked if they had these things. Three didn’t have vehicle access, and one told a story about it taking eight hours to get a vehicle to take a victim to the hospital.
“We fixed it, and I’ve routinely … spot-checked it on the weekends,” Bernabe said. Three times, he has sent an officer on weekend duty down to a brigade after 10 p.m. to test personnel on how quickly a vehicle could be provided. There were some bumps, but now units are able to get vehicle keys for SHARP personnel within 15 minutes.
Caring for victims
Bernabe signed a new policy to keep victims and alleged perpetrators separated in the barracks and the workplace, and he worked with the Department of Emergency Services to improve the filing of military protective orders after a crime is reported.
The police department rearranged internal processes to make sure police gathered all information needed from commanders to get military protective orders into the Army tracking system within four hours and into the civilian system known as National Criminal Investigative Checks, said Lt. Col. Phil Warren, commander of the Fort Bliss 93rd Military Police Battalion.
Warren moved the protective order filing process from dispatch to the front police desk, where commanders interact with law enforcement. Then he had police ask for additional information required for the civilian system. In the past, police would often have to go back to commanders and wait for response.
“No matter where our victims are, no matter where our alleged offenders are, it gets brought to the attention of the commander that there’s been an infraction or an infringement on that [protective order]. That was a big win for us,” Warren said. “It shows a genuine concern and care for our victims, and it also shows that the command cares about the victims.”
Bernabe reviewed the average time to complete a sexual assault case from reporting to court-martial, finding that Fort Bliss was moving cases through quicker than Fort Hood, “but not fast enough for me and certainly not fast enough for our victims,” he said. “I was not allowing anyone to rest on the laurels of where we stacked up on the Fort Hood report.”
The Fort Hood report looked at case timing at several Army bases. It stated that it took an average of 170 days from the time the Army Criminal Investigative Command, known as CID, opened a case at Fort Bliss to when investigators referred it to the commander. Fort Bragg, N.C., was found to have the highest average, at 316 days. At Fort Hood, it was 215 days.
Once a commander preferred charges and initiated the adjudication process, Fort Bliss averaged about 182 days to trial termination, according to the Fort Hood report. Fort Campbell, Ky., had the highest average with 235 days. Fort Hood averaged 210 days.
To tackle this delay, Bernabe is planning a second courtroom at Fort Bliss. The new facility should be operating by July, but a temporary facility and judge could be ready to hear cases by next month, he said.
He’s also reached out to his senior leaders about other bottlenecks in the system, such as the time it takes to get lab results. All Defense Department investigative agencies run forensic evidence through one lab, the Army Criminal Investigation Lab within the Defense Forensic Science Center in Forest Park, Ga.
“Army senior leaders are looking at ways to address that,” Bernabe said.
The potential problems created by delays in the process were recently exposed after the death of Pfc. Asia Graham, who was found dead at Fort Bliss on Dec. 31. She reported in June 2020 that she had been sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier Dec. 30, 2019.
It took seven months from the time she reported the crime to the Army moving forward with criminal charges and court-martial proceedings against the alleged perpetrator, Pfc Christian G. Alvarado. Those charges include an assault against a second soldier that occurred in May, before Graham’s report and a third assault that occurred in August, after Graham’s report.
Amy Franck, the founder of Never Alone, an advocacy organization for victims of sexual assault in the military, said dealing with the backlog of cases is an important step that should be addressed Army-wide.
“It is a system issue,” she said. “You can’t prevent crimes that happen in the dark and in private. The only prevention is punishing offenders and making the punishment public.”
Overseeing Operation Ironclad, which also targets extremism and suicide, is British general Brig. Andy Cox, who serves as the division deputy commander for maneuver. He is part of an exchange program between the United Kingdom and the U.S.
As a battalion commander, Cox worked on the British army’s efforts six years ago to integrate women into combat units. He said he approached Bernabe with the idea of leading Operation Ironclad because he was so passionate about it. Now it’s become his top priority, Cox said.
“I know we can do something. I absolutely know it can be done. It’s just a pretty significant challenge,” he said. “It’s imperative we attack the corrosives.”
The Fort Hood report is a starting point, but it is not enough, he said.
“The majority of that report attends to what happens at the point of incident or just after one incident and everything after, so we are right after the bang … right after something bad happened,” Cox said. “Whilst that is important, it doesn’t change anything. It just makes it slightly better for that victim, maybe. The real game is, what do we do [before] the incident? How do we prevent this thing ever happening? So how do we immediately make the environment less permissive for these behaviors?”
Cox began by assessing what is known about the victims at Fort Bliss. They tend to be new arrivals, 19 or 20 years old, and women, he said. They tend to be attacked by a person who is just senior to them, either in age or rank.
“If we have to target anybody to change their behaviors and change our outlook, it is the lowest possible level of command, which is squad leaders up to platoon leadership,” he said. “That is not saying it’s their fault. They are the people that ultimately change the microclimates because they are with them 18 hours a day.”
These leaders are also the youngest and least experienced, “and we haven’t really armed them with the skills to deal with pretty sophisticated leadership challenges,” he said.
While prevention is important, Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel and former military judge, said it must be balanced with an emphasis on accountability. He’s now the president of Protect Our Defenders, a group working to end sexual violence in the military.
“I’m worrying there’s too much of an idea that prevention is going to solve this, and we don’t really need accountability,” he said. “That’s like saying preventing cancer is more important than treating it. Well, if you’ve got cancer, treating it is pretty damn important.”
Training to prevent assaults
Last week, Fort Bliss hosted one of the first large-scale events of the operation, the Ironclad Summit. Bernabe brought all battalion and brigade commanders and command sergeants major together to discuss ways to address corrosive behavior through conversations and training techniques.
These leaders are most able to get training to that lower level of leadership, said Whitley, who attended the conference and cited Fort Bliss as pushing initiatives that he would like to see across the entire Army.
“It’s our soldiers who make us what we are,” Whitley said. “That’s why this is such an important issue. This is about taking care of our soldiers. When a soldier is attacking another soldier, that’s a unit that’s not cohesive. That’s a unit that’s not ready.”
At its core, the summit intended to teach leaders how to have difficult conversations with their junior leaders and soldiers, said Sgt. 1st Class Renee Kyger, lead sexual assault response coordinator for the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss.
“If you are afraid to dive into finding out what’s driving a soldier, and why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling or why they’re doing the things they’re doing, you’re not going to get to the bottom of the behavior,” she said.
Lt. Col. Todd Hertling, commander of 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, part of the 1st Armored Division, said he’s seen in his 20 years of service a tendency to “rubber stamp” training related to sexual assault and harassment.
“That is not the case today,” he said during a break from the summit. “It’s not necessarily anything revolutionary, but being able to have small groups, small group settings, where we just we have very open and candid conversations that make us uncomfortable, that’s where the learning takes place.”
It also presents a certain level of humility for a commander to be vulnerable with soldiers, he said.
“We can address it as a team, if we’re willing to let down our guard and talk about it,” Hertling said.
The next steps
The summit isn’t the end of Operation Ironclad, and there is more in store to continue to address the problem every day, Bernabe said. Similar to an initiative at Fort Bragg, N.C., he plans to host an idea-generating event designed after the TV show “Shark Tank.” This will encourage soldiers to submit their own ideas to solve problems at Fort Bliss related to sexual assault and prevention, and then present them to senior leaders for possible implementation.
“We’re very hungry for soldiers, young noncommissioned officers and young officers to help us understand what’s really going on inside the formations,” he said. “Are the things that we’re doing helping? Or are there other ideas, other things that we should do to really strengthen the cohesion of our teams, to make sure that our environment doesn’t allow for this kind of corrosive behavior?”
The Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program at Fort Bliss, Texas, has created a series of scenarios that encourage small groups of soldiers to have uncomfortable conversations that could inform them on how to prevent sexual assault and harassment among their teammates. In this scenario, a soldier is passed out and naked in the barracks after a night of drinking alcohol. Soldiers are given three options on how to care for the soldier, though none are a clear, correct answer.
NICHOLAS BROWN-BELL/U.S. ARMY