The five members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee testified on their damning findings before House leaders on Wednesday and said the firing and suspension of 14 leaders and soldiers at the Army base isn’t enough to change its culture.
The panelists elaborated on the results first shared Tuesday and offered recommendations for the Killeen base where 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillen was murdered in April.
The report uncovered chronic leadership failures that contributed to a widespread pattern of violence including murder, sexual assaults and harassment.
When asked if the firings were enough during Wednesday’s hearing, panel member Jonathan Harmon said: ‘The answer is no….It’s going to take a lot more work. Changing culture is hard and it doesn’t come from firing 14 people.’
Panel chair Chris Swecker said Wednesday the panel spoke to all 300 three and four-star commanders in the Army this morning and the firings, which included three top commanders, surprised them.
‘The action on the 14 got their attention. This actually surprised us…We thought the action was decisive and certainly got the people’s attention. We feel like they’re listening,’ he said.
Panel member Carrie Ricci revealed that while soldiers at the base had the opportunity to seek mental health care, many were timid to get help for fear that it could jinx their careers.
Spc. Guillen, 20, disappeared from the Killeen, Texas base in April and her dismembered and buried remains were found on June 30 near the Leon River
On Tuesday the Army announced 14 commanders and enlisted soldiers were fired or suspended as a result of the panel’s review. When asked if that was enough during Wednesday’s hearing, panel member Jonathan Harmon said: ‘The answer is no. Changing culture is hard and it doesn’t come from firing 14 people’
On Wednesday morning panel members spoke to all three and four-star commanders in the Army. ‘We thought the action was decisive and certainly got the people’s attention. We feel like they’re listening,’ Panel chair Chris Swecker said
Harmon doubled down that firing Army personnel isn’t enough to change Fort Hood’s issues.
‘Our report was very clear that the problems at Fort Hood were not the result of one commander. They were not the result of one administration but they were really the result of years of benign neglect in the area of sexual harassment and assault, a lack of focus, a lack of accountability,’ Harmon said.
On Wednesday the panel said the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) needs more experienced agents to deal with disappearances and sexual assault cases because they found many were young and inexperienced.
The panel found only three or four officers within CID had more than three years of experience.
They said the base also needs more ‘human touch’ and communication between superiors on the base and soldiers to better care for their well-being.
They said they found many commanders didn’t know their enlisted soldiers.
The death of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, who was found dead hanging from a tree on August 19, was brought up at the hearing.
He had allegedly been hazed and ‘humiliated’ by peers after he reported he was sexually assaulted by a male superior, his family’s lawyer said
‘On Elder Fernandes – we had some deep concerns and I go back to the inexperience, in some cases of the (CID),’ Swecker said.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, was found dead hanging from a tree on August 19. He had allegedly been hazed and ‘humiliated’ by peers after he reported he was sexually assaulted by a male superior, his family’s lawyer said. The panel said inexperienced CID investigators exonerated his alleged harasser based off a polygraph test
‘In this case his alleged harasser was exonerated on a polygraph. I personally don’t have a lot of faith in the polygraph. That should not be the sole criteria in exonerating someone on sexual harassment.
‘We go back to the conundrum of CID with rapid investigations. We want every suicide investigated to the Nth degree to see what happened,’ he added.
‘What we were trying to say was any experienced agent, five, ten-year agent wouldn’t get rid of a case based on a polygraph…That’s not the way its supposed to be used,’ Swecker said.
He also said the CID needs to better collaborate with local police enforcement in their investigations.
Panel member Carrie Ricci said that while soldiers at the base had the opportunity to seek mental health care, many were timid to get help for fear that it could jinx their careers
The hearing was chaired by California Rep. Jackie Speier who is the primary sponsor of the I Am Vanessa Guillen bill. She said the federal government has spent almost $1billion over the past decade to address accountability issues within the Army and little has changed
The panel was also asked about the mental health resources available at the base.
Ricci said: ‘I did look into behavioral health and the good news is that there are a myriad of avenues where soldiers can get quality mental health. The bad news is that soldiers don’t always have confidence that they can go to get mental health help.’
‘We also noted that with the embedded behavior health specialists there’s such a connection to the command that the language used with us was “Our priority is to return to soldier to duty,” when the first priority should be to make the solider whole,’ she added.
She said while there are at least four different avenues that soldiers at Fort Hood can get quality mental health care from, many don’t pursue help.
‘They don’t have the confidence… it might hurt their career, some even thought it might hurt them later in civilian life,’ she said.
The hearing was chaired by California Rep. Jackie Speier who is the primary sponsor of the I Am Vanessa Guillen bill which will allow soldiers to report sexual assault and harassment outside of their chain of control.
At the conclusion of the hearing she said the federal government has spent almost $1billion over the past decade to address accountability issues within the Army and little has changed.
Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who was left in charge of the base earlier this year when Guillen was killed, was fired following the review
Suspended: Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater (left) and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny (right), both of the 1st Cavalry Division, were suspended following the review
Fired: Col. Ralph Overland (left), the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp (right), both of whom were in charge of Guillen’s unit, were fired
Fort Hood Independent Review’s Main Findings and Recommendations
- The panel found chronic leadership failures that contributed to a widespread pattern of violence including murder, sexual assaults and harassment at the base
- Panel found the base didn’t properly implement the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP) meant to curb and respond to sexual assault and harassment cases
- In interviews panelists learned that hundreds of sexual assault and harassment cases went unreported for fear of retaliation
- Report found Fort Hood’s protocols were ‘inadequate’ in regards to missing soldiers and there was little effort made to check about suspicious circumstances
- In response the Army created the People First Task Force to implement new policies suggested in review
- New policy on missing soldiers includes a new status called ‘absent-unknown’ for soldiers during the first 48 hours they go missing
- Soldiers will no longer be considered AWOL, absent without leave, unless commanders confirm the absence is voluntary
- The panel said there should be a restructuring of the SHAPE program at the base so soldiers can report sexual assault and harassment without fear
- At the base there should be a cadre of full-time Victim Advocates, comprised of civilians and uniformed personnel to aide in cases
In Tuesday’s dramatic purge Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who was left in charge of the base earlier this year when Guillen was killed, was fired from his post.
Army leaders had already delayed Efflandt’s planned transfer to Fort Bliss, where he was supposed to take over leadership of the 1st Armored Division, due to the investigations into the base.
The base commander, Army Lt. Gen. Pat White, will not face any administrative action because he was deployed to Iraq as the commander there for much of the year.
The leadership of Guillen’s unit, Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment were also fired.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, 1st Cavalry Division commanding general and command sergeant major, were both suspended.
Their suspension is pending the outcome of a new Army Regulation (AR) 15-6 investigation of 1st Cavalry Division’s command climate and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.
The names of the battalion level and below commanders and leaders who received administrative action were not released.
‘The investigation after Vanessa Guillen’s murder found Fort Hood has a command climate that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault,’ Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
He said the issues plaguing Fort Hood are ‘directly related to leadership failures.’
As a result of the findings a separate probe into staffing and procedures at the base’s Criminal Investigation Command unit, which is responsible for investigating crimes on Fort Hood, was also ordered as a result of the investigation.
The investigation was launched in July and the panel interviewed hundreds of people on the base and in the area to assess the Killeen base’s command culture and handling of sexual harassment cases and disappearances.
Fort Hood’s grim death toll: 31 soldiers have died in 2020 alone
Vanessa Guillen’s high-profile death captured the attention of the nation and led to a reckoning within the Army in its handling of sexual harassment and assault.
Only after her death did the staggering number of deaths, disappearances, and issues at the Killeen, Texas base come to light.
In total, 31 soldiers have died.
February 1, 2020: PVT Eric Christopher Hogan and PFC Anthony Nevelle Peak Jr. die in a car crash
March 1, 2020: SPC Shelby Tyler Jones is shot dead at a convenience store in Killeen
March 5, 2020: Spc. Christopher Wayne Sawyer found dead at his home. Foul play is not suspected.
March 14, 2020: SPC Freddy Beningo Delacruz Jr. is killed in a triple murder
March 23, 2020: Fort Hood soldier Spc. Jovino Jamel Roy, 22, was charged with murder after allegedly shooting former Fort Hood soldier Michael Steven Wardrobe, 22
Spc. Guillen, 20, (left) disappeared from the Killeen, Texas base in April and her dismembered and buried remains were found on June 30 near the Leon River. Officials said fellow soldier Aaron Robinson, 20, (right) was the main suspect in her killing. He shot and killed himself as police honed in on him on July 1
Fort Hood soldier, Pfc. Gregory Morales was reported missing from the base a year ago in August 2019. The 24-year-old’s remains were found in June in a field in Killeen during the search for Guillen’s remains
April 22, 2020: Vanessa Guillen goes missing and is last seen in the parking lot of the base. She disappeared after telling her family she was being sexually harassed by a sergeant on the base.
May 18, 2020: Body of Army Pfc. Brandon S. Rosecrans, 27, was discovered with gunshot wounds and his Jeep was found three miles away engulfed in flames.
June 19, 2020: Search teams discover the corpse of missing soldier Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales following a tip to Army base investigators. Remains were found in a field in Killeen, just over 10 miles from Stillhouse Hollow Lake, five miles from Fort Hood.
July 1, 2020: First parts of Giullen’s remains found about 20 miles east of Fort Hood.
Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, kills himself. Officials say he killed and dismembered Guillén and had the remains disposed of.
July 2, 2020: Army Specialist Miguel Yazzie, 33, died on July 2; Yazzie, of Window Rock, Arizona, was hospitalized for a medical condition the day before he died.
July 17, 2020: Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, of Pensacola, Florida was found dead July 17 in the vicinity of Stillhouse Hollow Lake, around 15 miles from the Fort Hood base.
Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, (left) of Florida was found unresponsive on July 17 near Stillhouse Hollow Lake. The body of Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas, 24, (right) was found August 2 after he died in a boating accident at the same lake over the weekend
August 2, 2020: The body of Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas, 24, is recovered from Stillhouse Hollow Lake following boating incident not far from where Morta was found.
August 12, 2020: Spc. Cole Jakob Aton, 22, of Kentucky died after he was hit by a car as he was assisting a minor accident scene
August 13, 2020: National Guard soldier, Sgt Bradley Moore dies during a training exercise at the base
August 19, 2020: Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, is reported missing after he was last seen on August 17.
August 25, 2020: The body of Fernandes is believed to have been found about 30 miles from Fort Hood
August 28, 2020: Pvt. Corlton L. Chee, 25, collapsed during fitness training at Fort Hood on August 28. He died two days later.
November 3, 2020: Spc. Cory Grafton, 20, was arrested after a witness account and advanced DNA testing allegedly linked him to the murder of Chelsea Cheatham, 32, who was found dead in a Days Inn hotel, six minutes away from the Texas base, in June 2019