At stadium gathering of enlisted, Fort Hood soldiers tell their stories of sexual assault
FORT HOOD, Texas — Standing in parade rest, an Army specialist on Tuesday told Lt. Gen. Pat White, commander of the central Texas base, about being raped there by a fellow soldier in her unit, and then having to live in the same barracks building with him.
Behind her, nearly 2,000 other soldiers sat silent in the blue bleachers of Hood Stadium as she described her failed attempts to receive therapy and her constant fear of seeing her perpetrator.
“He was partying with people right there next to my room. I was scared, but I couldn’t do anything about that,” said the soldier, who is not being identified because she was the victim of an assault.
Eventually, she was able to speak to a major who helped her living situation, but she told White that it shouldn’t require such efforts from a victim of sexual assault.
Her chain of command did not know what to do “because they are not getting the proper training,” she said. “We need people who care and not just take it with a grain of salt. It’s not a joke. It really messes people’s lives up.”
The soldier was one of two women who chose to share emotional stories of sexual assault Tuesday at the stadium gathering with White, who hosted the discussion following the release of an Army report that found Fort Hood has created an environment permissive of sexual assault.
“I think once you have an opportunity to read the report, which is required reading for every soldier in [III Corps], you’ll see some extremely similar comments about our program,” said White, who is the commander of Fort Hood and III Corps. “The courage you showed to get up in front of everybody to talk about a situation that you still live in today is a thread that’s in this report that’s coming out. We have a problem here that can be solved by all of you and I’m going to help as much as I can.”
The report was the result of a three-month investigation into the command climate and culture at Fort Hood and it stated soldiers, particularly young women serving in the lower ranks, do not have confidence in the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, which has led to underreporting. For soldiers who do report, the investigation found they face a drawn-out process and investigators who are under-experienced, over-assigned and under-resourced.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy appointed five civilians to conduct the investigation as part of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee following public outcry about the number of violent crimes, deaths and sexual assaults and harassment at the base.
Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s death was one of five at the base to be ruled a homicide and brought national attention to the issue. Guillen, a 20-year-old small arms repairer, was killed April 22 by a fellow soldier in an arms room on base during the work day.
McCarthy said the findings in the report were a direct result of the failures of leadership and 14 leaders at Fort Hood were relieved or suspended, including the command team at the helm of Guillen’s unit, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
Pfc. Saricia Wright arrived at Fort Hood three months ago and works in the same regiment doing the same job as Guillen. She said it’s difficult to hear others describe the regiment by its failings and was nervous about the assignment.
“Before we got here, I can remember my drill sergeants were concerned for us as females coming here and they also said be safe. They were scared for us coming here,” Wright said Tuesday following the stadium discussion. “They told us to watch out for each other. Always have each other’s back.”
Spc. Manuel Viveros, also of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, said it’s difficult to hear a discussion of the issues long known to soldiers in his unit, particularly because it took several deaths and media attention for leaders to take notice. Soldiers ranked private through specialist make up about half of the 37,500 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood, but they often feel like an afterthought, he said.
“It took [death] to realize that and take the initiative to move forward and try to resolve something and have something come out of it,” Viveros said.
White specifically asked for a gathering of those lower enlisted soldiers to join him at the stadium and took the opportunity to address the report directly. He asked the soldiers to pull out their phones and share his remarks on social media so his message could travel farther.
He said he’s already directed the base’s SHARP program receives further support. It is now overseen by a sergeant first class and a civilian. He directed a master sergeant and lieutenant colonel come into the program to get it back on track.
White then took questions and comments from the crowd, which ranged from asking about living conditions in the barracks to promotion criteria to requesting more morale-focused activities to build camaraderie between soldiers.
Many of the soldiers who attended White’s outdoor briefing came straight from their jobs and had not heard the news that leaders had been fired, nor had they seen the report.
Spc. Alyssa Halcomb said she had been following the committee closely and was eager to read all 140 pages of the Fort Hood report.
“I’m stationed here. It’s my home. It’s my job. It impacts my daily life,” she said. “Also, it’s because I am interested in the news. I try and pay attention to current events. I’m also an intelligence analyst and one of the things we learned in the schoolhouse is you’ve got to watch the news.”
Halcomb said she been assigned for the past year to the 1st Cavalry Division, a unit with leaders also impacted by the report. Maj. Gen Jeff Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Kenny, the division’s commander and top noncommissioned officer, were suspended Tuesday, pending a new Army-directed investigation into the division’s command climate and culture.
“I like to know that they are working on making changes. This has been encouraging for me. They want to improve the way things are for soldiers here,” she said.
She would like to see more of these honest conversations with top commanders, Halcomb said.
“Yes, the chain of command is there, and people do use it. But when there’s question about the chain of command, something like this gives them the opportunity where they can feel brave enough to come forward because they’ve got all their peers right there,” she said.