Independent investigators will review the apparent rise in violence around Fort Hood, a Texas post with the highest number of murder, sexual assault and harassment reports in the military branch, U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Thursday during a visit to the base.
McCarthy’s visit came weeks after he announced an independent review of Fort Hood’s command culture in the wake of the slaying of Vanessa Guillén, the 20-year-old Houston soldier who in April had disappeared from the base.
Guillén, whose remains were found last month, said she was sexually harassed on the base before she was killed. McCarthy acknowledged that her death served as a tipping point for former and current American soldiers who have been traumatized by sexual abuse, prompting social media testimonials about their own experiences.
Besides Guillén, several soldiers stationed on the base have died or been found dead since March. Through multiple investigations, Army officials hope to find what led to Guillén’s murder and weed out problems with the overall climate on the base, McCarthy said.
“Vanessa is our teammate and we let her down,” McCarthy said. “We let her family down, and it hurts. But the amazing contributions from people that are in this installation have to continue to endure. We rely on these units to protect our way of life. We’re going to do everything we can to prevent these types of things from happening again, to learn from this and move on. But we will do everything we can to protect her legacy by making enduring changes.”
McCarthy also said the base was the “highest in most cases for sex assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation in the US army.” He did not provide specific data.
“We are getting an outside look to help us get to those root causes and understand them so we can make those changes,” he said. “The point of emphasis being we are going to put every resource and all of the energy we can in this entire institution behind fixing those problems.”
Authorities say Spc. Aaron Robinson bludgeoned Guillén to death before burying her body near the base with his girlfriend’s help. Robinson died by suicide July 1 as police were preparing to arrest him. His girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, has been charged in federal court with conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
Guillén’s family has said Robinson had sexually harassed her, but the Army has said there is no evidence supporting the claim. McCarthy said that is part of the criminal investigation.
As part of the independent review of the climate at the base, McCarthy said he will appoint four civilian experts to a panel that will spend five to 10 days at Fort Hood reviewing historical data, command climate surveys, inspector general reports, crime reports, and data related to the military’s response to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Further, McCarthy said he is discussing the language in a proposed bill related to Guillén’s case that would improve reporting methods for sexual harassment and assault at Army bases. He also said officials “at the highest levels of the Army” have been considering possible changes to the process of reporting missing soldiers.
Concerns of sexual abuse in the Army are not new. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in 2013 introduced The Military Justice Improvement Act, which would have created an independent military prosecutor to review reports of sexual assault among soldiers. The senate blocked the proposal, but last year Sen. Ted Cruz signed on to reintroduce the bill. It will now be offered as an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, according to a news release from his office.
During his visit, McCarthy said the Army would be rolling out an initiative called Project Inclusion to address “behaviors that tear at the fabric of our force.” He said these included diversity, discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault and suicide. He cited a nationwide reckoning that has occurred amid protests over racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“We’re a reflection of the country,” he said. “And at times some people infiltrate our ranks. We’ve got to find them, and we’ve got to root them out.”
Gabrielle Banks and The Associated Press contributed to this report.