The Pentagon ordered a top-to-bottom housecleaning at troubled Fort Hood, the nation’s largest active-duty armored base, relieving or suspending more than a dozen officers Tuesday after a civilian task force found an atmosphere “permissive” of sexual assaults in the ranks and dismissive of the women who tried to report them.
Women assigned to Fort Hood told the civilian review team that they have been living under a cloud of fear for years of being sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers and of not being believed by their commanders if they came forward. Programs designed to prevent attacks weren’t working, and investigators assigned to cases all too often were inexperienced, the team found.
All told, Army officials said they were adopting dozens of recommendations for reform of Fort Hood’s command climate and culture put forward in the scathing report released Tuesday that was sparked in part by outrage in the aftermath of Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s disappearance and death this year.
Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy, who ordered the review, announced Tuesday that he had relieved or suspended 14 leaders on the post, including the commander of the unit assigned to Guillen.
“I am gravely disappointed that leaders failed to effectively create a climate that treated all soldiers with dignity and respect,” Mr. McCarthy said. “The murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems.”
Fort Hood’s problems went deeper than sexual harassment. The central Texas base 60 miles from Austin reported the Army’s highest numbers of violent felonies. Just in the past six month, five soldiers assigned to the base have been killed, and the review panel said the base’s criminal investigation unit lacked the expertise and manpower to take on such cases.
Among those relieved were Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, deputy commanding general at III Corps and until recently the acting Fort Hood base commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and senior enlisted leader.
“This report,” Mr. McCarthy said, “without a doubt will cause the Army to change our culture.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he had spoken with Guillen’s mother earlier in the day.
“I told her that we’re going to fix these issues and change the culture that allowed them to happen,” Gen. McConville said. “I told her we must and will provide a safe and secure environment for America’s sons and daughters who serve in the Army.”
The civilian review included 70 recommendations and nine findings that addressed flaws in the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) program at Fort Hood. Unit leaders knew or should have known of the high risk of harm to female soldiers, according to the report.
“I have determined the issues at Fort Hood are directly related to leadership failures. Leaders drive culture and are responsible for everything the unit does or does not happen to do,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Chris Swecker, a former FBI agent who led the review team, said Army officials at Fort Hood turned a blind eye to the rash of sexual harassments and assaults in the ranks.
“While Fort Hood leadership afforded the highest priority to maintaining equipment, conducting field training and ensuring deployment capability, a series of command elements executed these duties in a manner that was at the expense of the health and safety of all soldiers — but particularly for women at the brigade level and below,” Mr. Swecker said. “The dearth of command emphasis on the SHARP program adversely impacted mission readiness.”
The panel recommended changes to the staffing and structure of the SHARP program at Fort Hood, and possibly beyond, to address “deeply dysfunctional norms and regain soldiers’ trust.”
The panel of five civilians, which included lawyers and military veterans, conducted more than 2,500 interviews, including 647 in person. More than 500 of those interviews were with women at Fort Hood, many of whom said they were reluctant to come forward before for fear of retaliation.
“There was a fear that the confidentiality of the reporting process would be compromised,” Mr. Swecker said.
The review team members said they made a “concerted effort” to interview all the women assigned to specific units at Fort Hood, including the 3rd Cavalry Regiment where Spc. Guillen was assigned. They discovered 93 credible accounts of sexual assault at Fort Hood but only 59 that were reported.
“The process was so long and drawn-out, most people never saw the actual results,” Mr. Swecker said. “Delays were built into the process, and nobody monitored the life cycle of a sexual assault or sexual harassment complaint.”
Carrie Ricci, a former Army lawyer on the review team, conducted many of the interviews with the female soldiers at Fort Hood.
“It was a little bit cathartic for many of them because someone was listening. They felt like they were being heard,” she said.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was pushing the Army to take more aggressive action to search for Spc. Guillen after she turned up missing. In a statement, LULAC National President Domingo Garcia called the development “a major step in the right direction.”
“LULAC looks forward to continuing to work with the Army to make sure that the changes are made that stop the sexual harassment and abuse of our soldiers in the military,” Mr. Garcia said.
Court documents later revealed that a fellow soldier in Guillen’s squadron, Spc. Aaron Robinson, killed her with a hammer and then moved her body. Robinson killed himself this summer after he was approached by police in Killeen, a city just outside Fort Hood.
As it has done in past disciplinary cases, the Army declined to identify commanders in units at the battalion level and below who were fired as a result of Tuesday’s findings. Army Lt. Gen. Pat White, Fort Hood’s commander, kept his job because he only recently returned from Iraq, where he had been for 13 months, leaving Maj. Gen. Efflandt in charge.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said they were encouraged that the Army was not hiding the problems at the base and not protecting those responsible.
“Many of the problems stem back to egregious mistakes made by the chain of command that created an unacceptable environment for the soldiers at Fort Hood, especially for female soldiers,” they said in a statement. “What’s worse is leaders weren’t held accountable. When that happens, the process breaks down. Fixing this problem is the right first step.”
The review team found that soldier accountability was not strictly enforced at Fort Hood, resulting in ad hoc responses to reports of missing soldiers at each unit. That confusion prompted Mr. McCarthy to announce a change to the Army’s missing soldier policy. In the past, soldiers who were absent for unknown reasons were simply listed as “absent without leave” (AWOL), which is a military violation regardless of the circumstances.
“When one of our teammates does not report for duty, we will change their duty status to ‘absent-unknown’ and take immediate action to find them,” Mr. McCarthy said. That includes providing a liaison officer to the soldier’s family while the search continues.
Under the new policy, commanders must determine by a “preponderance of evidence” that a soldier’s absence is voluntary before they can be classified as AWOL.
Mr. McCarthy also directed the suspension of Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Kenny of the Fort Hood-based 1st Cavalry Division, pending the outcome of investigation of how that unit has dealt with sexual harassment and assault in the ranks. The Army is also opening an inquiry into policies and procedures of the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us. This is an initial step to address and fix these issues,” Mr. McCarthy said.
• Mike Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.
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