Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s harasser was a known toxic leader, Army report shows
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 5, 2021
AUSTIN, Texas — The sexual harassment that Spc. Vanessa Guillen faced before her death last year from a noncommissioned officer at Fort Hood wasn’t an isolated incident.
There had been four other complaints filed against her platoon sergeant for his mistreatment of subordinates, yet leaders continued to move him and keep him in charge of soldiers, according to an Army report released last week.
The sergeant, whose name was redacted in the public release of the report, was known to yell, belittle and threaten soldiers with counseling, delayed promotion or denial of leave, while playing favorites and speaking Spanish in the workplace, which isolated those who didn’t understand the language, according to the report.
Though the redacted report does not include his position in Guillen’s unit, he was identified as her platoon sergeant by Gen. Michael Garrett, the commander of Army Forces Command who initiated the internal administrative investigation, known as a 15-6.
The platoon sergeant and 20 other leaders have faced disciplinary action in the wake of the investigation and another report by the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee that was released in December. It is unclear where and in what position the sergeant serves now, but he has been notified of an intent to relieve him from leadership, according to a military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That administrative action will trigger an evaluation and includes a period of review when the soldier being disciplined can respond.
Punishment for some of the other leaders at Fort Hood came because they continued to place this NCO in positions of leadership, which showed poor judgment, the military official said. Others were punished for failing to take corrective actions and effectively implement the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, according to Army Forces Command.
While some leaders were relieved from their positions, others received General Officer Memorandums of Reprimand — a written reprimand that goes into a soldier’s permanent file.
The report described how a toxic leader in one platoon created an “intimidating, hostile environment,” and those able to stop the harassment failed to do so. Guillen’s platoon exemplified on a small scale how soldiers’ erosion of trust occurred at Fort Hood, which was found by the independent and internal Army investigations.
In a letter from Garrett to soldiers and the larger military community, the general wrote his command remains committed to learning from the findings of the Army report, and he will “continue to take aggressive actions to place people first and strengthen our culture of trust, dignity and respect.”
The Army investigation, announced in September and under the direction of Gen. John Murray, the commander of Army Futures Command, looked into every echelon of Guillen’s leadership between April 22 and July 1 to learn what her leaders knew and when they knew it. The investigation also looked into allegations from the Guillen family that she had faced sexual harassment during the 15 months that she spent at Fort Hood.
Guillen, a small-arms repairer in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, disappeared during the workday on April 22, 2020. After more than two months, investigators found her body buried along a river miles from the central Texas Army base. Spc. Aaron Robinson, a fellow soldier in the regiment, is believed to have killed her with a hammer in an arms room that he supervised. When confronted by local law enforcement July 1 in nearby Killeen, Robinson shot himself dead.
Investigations and reforms
During the search for Guillen, some veterans came forward, mainly through social media, with their own stories of sexual assault and harassment and a distrust for the systems in place to protect and support service members who are victims of these attacks. In response, the Army announced two separate investigations into Fort Hood, and two congressional committees announced a joint investigation.
The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee released a report in December that provided 70 recommendations, which led to the firing or suspension of 14 Army leaders. The Army’s newly established People First Task Force is working to implement all of the committee’s recommendations, which include restructuring of the SHARP program and the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
The internal investigation led by Murray found problems that matched those noted by the independent committee — many of which stemmed from soldiers’ distrust of leaders and a high-operational tempo that focused on performance and discounted the well-being of people.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s subpanel on national security and the House Committee on Armed Services’ subpanel on military personnel launched an investigation in September into the deaths of soldiers assigned to Fort Hood. In total, 35 soldiers died at the base in 2020. Twelve of those soldiers died by suicide, 14 died in accidents and five died by homicide, according to Fort Hood. One soldier died in combat overseas.
Members involved in that investigation will visit Fort Hood this week for an update. Their report is expected out by the end of the year, according to a congressional aide.
Murray’s investigation found two instances of sexual harassment against Guillen from the same man, her platoon sergeant. She informally reported the harassment on two occasions. But in both instances, her supervisor failed to report the harassment, and other leaders failed to take appropriate action, according to the report.
The harassment changed Guillen’s view of service, according to the report. She went from being a “first-term soldier vocalizing and posting about re-enlistment to fantasizing about the expiration of her term of service,” Murray wrote in the report.
But no evidence indicated this sexual harassment was related to her death, the Army concluded.
Robinson, the soldier believed to have killed Guillen, also sexually harassed a female soldier, but the incident was not reported until after his death, the Army said.
However, the investigation also uncovered that the platoon sergeant didn’t just harass Guillen, he was known among soldiers and other leaders in the unit as a “counterproductive leader.” It led to “low trust [and] very low morale” in the maintenance platoon and soldiers lost focus on their assigned tasks, according to the report.
“[His] unchecked behavior directly impacted the performance of multiple soldiers and readiness functions,” Murray wrote in the report. “Likewise, the failure to act by the chain of command, cemented the severely diminished lack of trust in leadership.”
When it came to Guillen, the sergeant would bypass her squad leader to call her directly, often just to make certain that she was still around, according to the report. He often spoke to Guillen in Spanish, and she told someone, whose name was redacted in the report, that he once said inappropriate things during a unit urinalysis.
The sergeant was the subject of two formal inspector general complaints that were investigated and the allegations confirmed, as well as an informal inspector general complaint and an equal opportunity complaint, according to the report.
Leaders held a sensing session and counseled the sergeant after the two formal complaints in August 2019.
Afterward, the sergeant was moved on Feb. 15, 2020, from one platoon to another position that was redacted from the report, though his leaders were aware of complaints on his “leadership style.” Another person, whose name is redacted from the report, agreed they would watch and see if anything changed with the sergeant.
‘We were not walking the talk’
Similar to the report released in December, Murray’s investigation uncovered the 3rd Cavalry Regiment failed to properly train soldiers and leaders about the SHARP program and how to deal with reports of harassment or assault. The unit also failed to respond to command climate surveys that showed this deficit and other problems related to trust and inclusion.
One unit member told investigators that while the 3rd Cavalry Regiment had high performance marks on its training exercises and a great safety record, this didn’t mean that the health of the unit was strong.
“I just felt that we needed more time with people based on the climate surveys. I felt like we were not walking the talk. We needed to work on standards and discipline, and take it to the next level, and I felt like we weren’t there,” the soldier told investigators.
During the course of the investigation, Murray also found noncompliance with protocols in place because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and some accountability checks on soldiers in the barracks were reported incorrectly. Leaders also did not follow required protocols for critical information reporting and serious incident reports, which outlines exactly when to move an incident up the chain of command.
Murray said things have changed in the year since Guillen’s death and the unit and Fort Hood began to take a deep look at itself. The entire base has pivoted toward a “people first” approach and soldiers and units are meeting Army standards for SHARP training. He outlined several recommendations to build upon those efforts.
Army Forces Command has also begun offering units more time in the work schedule to focus on relationship building.
“At every echelon, leaders must engage with their people, build trust, and reinforce this trust with every action and decision,” Garrett said.