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Committee to review Fort Hood's command climate and culture has begun its work

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 17, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas – The five civilians tasked with reviewing the command climate and culture of Fort Hood, Texas, in response to the disappearance and murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen were officially sworn into service last week and have begun their work to better understand why the base has the Army’s highest levels of violent crime, the Army announced Monday.

Sworn in Wednesday, the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee members will examine the surrounding military community in addition to the base to determine whether they “reflect the Army’s commitment to safety, respect, inclusiveness, diversity and freedom from sexual harassment,” according to Monday’s news release.

"The Army is honored to have such highly qualified panel members help us explore the current environment in order to improve conditions for our soldiers, families and civilians," Undersecretary of the Army James E. McPherson said in a statement. "We thank them for their time and commitment to provide an accurate assessment of their findings."

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced the committee’s creation July 10 after a meeting with congressional and community leaders concerned about the handling of Guillen’s case. The Army announced July 30 that the panel would include Chris Swecker, Jonathan Harmon, Carrie Ricci, Queta Rodriguez and Jack White.

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 federal court documents. A second suspect, Cecily Aguilar, is in federal custody and accused of conspiracy to tamper with evidence. Robinson shot himself dead June 30 when approached by civilian law enforcement in Killeen, the town just outside Fort Hood.

During a visit to Fort Hood this month, 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 central Texas Army base have been ruled as homicides. While Guillen was killed on base, the other four soldiers were found dead in the nearby city Killeen.

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

Four of the five committee members are veterans, who served as officers in the Army and Marine Corps, according to biographical information provided in the news release. 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. They have worked on discrimination claims, civil matters, veterans' issues, whistleblower cases and law-enforcement investigations, among others.

Swecker, the only non-veteran, 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 the release. 

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.

McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville have requested the committee provide an interim program report by mid-September and a final report by Oct. 30. McPherson and Gen. Joseph M. Martin, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, will co-chair an implementation team to consider every recommendation and implement changes, as appropriate.

Their assessment will include a review of historical data and statistics; interviews with a wide range of Fort Hood personnel; an evaluation of policies, regulations and procedures regarding sexual assault prevention, sexual harassment, equal opportunity and responses to reports of missing soldiers; an evaluation of leaders' training, education, abilities and effectiveness; and the command climate at various units and its impact on the safety, welfare and readiness of their soldiers, according to the new release.

Support staff from the Headquarters of the Department of the Army, including personnel from the Office of the General Counsel, the Office of the Judge Advocate General, the Office of the Inspector General and other offices will assist the committee in their work.

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori