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GAO agrees to review Army's sexual harassment program

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 28, 2020

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday accepted a request from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., to review the Army’s sexual harassment response program in the wake of the disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, the senator’s office announced Friday.

The review will look at the implementation and effectiveness of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, after Guillen’s family said the soldier had experienced sexual harassment on base at Fort Hood, Texas, but was too afraid to report the instances to her chain of command.

Those allegations have led to at least four internal Army reviews at Fort Hood. Demand for transparency grew as other veterans and service members shared stories similar to Guillen’s using the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen.

“Sexual assault and harassment is a crisis in our nation’s military that impacts the lives of far too many women and men in uniform,” Duckworth said in a statement. “The military’s inability to address this problem fails survivors and harms our military’s readiness, recruitment and retention efforts. … I look forward to working with the GAO on this vital oversight. We can and must do better to support survivors of sexual harassment and assault in our military.”

Guillen, a 20-year-old from Houston, was last seen at work April 22. After a more than two-month search, her remains were found in a shallow grave about 20 miles from Fort Hood. Spc. Aaron Robinson, a fellow soldier whom the family said was the person harassing Guillen, was blamed for her death. He shot himself dead in Killeen, the city outside of Fort Hood, when confronted by local law enforcement on the day Guillen’s body was found.

Duckworth, a 23-year veteran of the Reserve Armed Forces and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, first requested the GAO look into the SHARP program in July along with the committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

In a letter confirming the review, Orice Williams Brown, managing director for congressional relations at the GAO, said the request was within the office’s scope of authority.

The review won’t begin for a few months, however, when staff become available, said Chuck Young, spokesman for the GAO. At that time, the office will determine the scope of what the review will cover and the timeframe for completion.

Another group of lawmakers wrote to the GAO on Friday asking for review the Army’s missing persons policy, which also came under scrutiny during Guillen’s disappearance and that of two other soldiers from Fort Hood this year.

Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales was last seen in August 2019 and his remains were found in Killeen in June. His death is under investigation by homicide detectives with the Killeen Police Department.

Sgt. Elder Fernandes went missing from the base Aug. 17 and was found dead eight days later in Temple, a city about 30 miles east of Fort Hood. Foul play is not suspected in his death, according to Temple police. Before his disappearance, Fernandes filed a report of abusive sexual contact, according to his unit, the 1st Cavalry Division.

“The horrific events at Fort Hood and glaring deficiencies in the military’s response to missing servicemembers demand an independent review of the military’s handling of missing-persons investigations,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a statement. She has called on the GAO to review the missing persons policy alongside Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Reed. All are members of their respective chambers’ armed services committees.

“Too often commanders assume that missing service members have deserted—an error that results in unnecessary delays and little to no effort to ensure the service member is safe. The cost of that failure, over and over, has been a soldier’s life. And the treatment of family members and loved ones that I have spoken with is just as disturbing. That isn’t just callous and disrespectful, it’s inhumane,” Speier said.

Together, the four lawmakers sent a letter to Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro, noting that the Army has said its leadership has already begun to review the policy and are considering changes.

“We are concerned that any shortcomings may not be limited to a single case or installation and could be indicative of problems across the Armed Forces,” they wrote. Their request asks the GAO to complete the review by Dec. 16, 2021.

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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