Panel blasts Fort Hood leaders, Army after disappearance, death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen; 14 fired or suspended

Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
·5 min read

WASHINGTON – An independent investigation into tragedies at Fort Hood, including the bludgeoning murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, found that leadership at the Army's largest base created a "permissive environment" that let sexual harassment and assault and other crimes occur with little consequence.

The report, released Tuesday, represents a scathing indictment of a dysfunctional Army culture and called for changes in staffing and programs to protect soldiers from assault. It found systemic failures starting with Army leaders who failed to address known problems with sexual assault and crime to understaffed and resourced programs to aid victims and investigate crimes.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said 14 Army leaders at Fort Hood have been fired or suspended as a result of the report. Among those relieved of command was Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, deputy commanding general for III Corps. McCarthy suspended Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater pending the outcome of an investigation.

"This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture,” he said.

Guillen's murder in April – and the failure to find her remains for nearly three months – focused attention and investigations on life at the sprawling post in Texas. The Army also announced Tuesday that it would change its procedures to search for soldiers soon after they are reported missing instead of assuming they've deserted their posts or gone absent without leave.

Congress has launched its own inquiry into the problems at Fort Hood. Beyond Guillen, Pvt. Mejhor Morta and Sgt. Elder Fernandes also vanished from the base and were discovered dead. Morta had drowned, and Fernandes died by suicide.

Vanessa Guillen: Fort Hood soldier who went missing in April, died 'in the line of duty,' Army says

Spc. Vanessa Guillen's death brought scrutiny to life at Fort Hood.
Spc. Vanessa Guillen's death brought scrutiny to life at Fort Hood.

Tuesday's report was produced by an independent panel of five experts who investigated whether personnel at Fort Hood and the surrounding community have allowed a climate of sexual harassment and discrimination to flourish. Chris Swecker, a lawyer and former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, led the panel.

Commanders at the post were singled out for failing to protect their soldiers.

"A military installation is essentially a large, gated community," the report says. "The Commander of a military installation possesses a wide variety of options to proactively address and mitigate the spectrum of crime incidents. Despite having the capability, very few tools were employed at Fort Hood to do so."

The panel found that the Army's principal effort aimed at addressing sexual assault, its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, was ineffective at Fort Hood. It blamed leaders at the post for giving it short shrift.

"During the review period, no Commanding General or subordinate echelon commander chose to intervene proactively and mitigate known risks of high crime, sexual assault and sexual harassment," the report says.

Fort Hood: Army shakes up leadership at Fort Hood after murder of Vanessa Guillen

The entrance to Fort Hood Army Base in Texas is shown in a 2009 file photo.
The entrance to Fort Hood Army Base in Texas is shown in a 2009 file photo.

That failure led to underreporting of sex crimes on the base, according to the report. Victims had little confidence that their complaints would be addressed, and, worse, feared retaliation. Much of the blame rests with their superior officers and noncommissioned officers, the report says.

"Without intervention from the NCOs and officers entrusted with their health and safety, victims feared the inevitable consequences of reporting: ostracism, shunning and shaming, harsh treatment, and indelible damage to their career," the report says. "Many have left the Army or plan to do so at the earliest opportunity."

The five civilian committee members and their staff interviewed more than 2,500 soldiers and Army civilians as part of the three-month investigation.

Soldiers, in interviews with the panel, had some of the most damning criticism. Most focus groups told investigators that they worried about their own safety and that of their families both on and off the post, according to the report. One reason cited was commanders' emphasis on preparing for deployments and that the welfare of soldiers was a secondary concern.

"One group of soldiers compared Fort Hood to deployment in war zones," the report states. "One said, 'being at Fort Hood is more of a deployment than Kuwait.' Several soldiers stated they felt 'safer in Afghanistan than at Fort Hood.'"

The report shows that commanders cannot be trusted to protect troops from sexual assault, said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for troops who are victims of sexual assault. He called for congressional action.

"From investigations to accountability, this is a damning inside look at Fort Hood's callous disregard to its soldiers' well-being," Christensen said. "As a result, soldiers fear reporting sexual assault and harassment and suffer severe retaliation if they do. Sadly, I don't believe this climate is unique to Fort Hood or the Army. This report should leave no doubt that it is time for Congress to finally act on fundamental reform of the military justice system."

In September, the Army signaled that major changes were coming. Officials announced that Efflandt would no longer take command of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

The Army directed one of its senior officers to investigate how it handled Guillen's disappearance and murder. A fellow soldier suspected in her death died by suicide as investigators sought to arrest him. Guillen was 20.

Problems at Fort Hood drew scrutiny and criticism from the highest level of Army leadership. One-third of soldiers surveyed there said they'd been sexually harassed. Rates of other crimes at Fort Hood outpaced other installations as well.

"The numbers are bad, and we need to make some adjustments," McCarthy said in September. "We’re very concerned."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fort Hood panel faults Army for ignoring sexual assaults; some fired