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Lawmakers Seek Changes to Resolve Problems at Fort Hood, Texas

December 10, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Lawmakers Seek Changes to Resolve Problems at Fort Hood, Texas
Gen. James McConville, Chief of Staff of the Army, left, steps away from the podium as Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, right, prepares to speak at a briefing on an investigation into Fort Hood, Texas at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress sought assurances from investigators Wednesday that the kind of behavioral and criminal offenses that have plagued Fort Hood, Texas, in recent years can be brought to an end.

By the end of the congressional hearing, some of them seemed skeptical about a quick resolution, either at Fort Hood or elsewhere in the U.S. military.

“We’ve spent over a billion dollars on this issue in the past 10 years and nothing changes,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel.

“At some point we’ve got to say we’ve got to do something different,” she said as she addressed the five members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee.

The Review Committee submitted a report to Congress this week that described widespread sexual harassment, a high suicide rate, substandard living conditions and violence that includes murder. Fort Hood reports the highest crime rate among U.S. military bases.

“It’s becoming frightful,” Speier said as she expressed concern the problems would dissuade some potential recruits from joining the military.

She is the primary sponsor of a congressional bill that would allow soldiers to report sexual assault or harassment outside their chain of command. Now they do not have that option.

The report led to the firing or suspension of 14 of Fort Hood’s senior leaders and enlisted personnel this week. Among them was Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who had been the deputy commanding general.

Concerns about Fort Hood’s personnel arose initially from the murder of Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old soldier who was bludgeoned to death by a fellow soldier on April 22 inside a Fort Hood armory.

She was missing for more than two months before her dismembered remains were found buried along the nearby Leon River. The man suspected of killing her fatally shot himself as police closed in to arrest him.

Before Guillen was reported missing, she told her family that she was being sexually harassed by a Fort Hood sergeant. She also said other female soldiers complained about the sergeant but their complaints were dismissed by commanding officers.

Guillen told her mother she was concerned about a reprisal if she filed a formal sexual harassment report.

An initial investigation by local police and the Defense Department revealed that Guillen’s murder served as an example of far-reaching failures at Fort Hood to halt sexual harassment, violence among soldiers and occasional suicides.

It also showed that the Fort Hood division of the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command lacked the professionalism to discover the source of the problems and halt them.

The Secretary of the Army in July appointed the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee to seek answers and solutions for Fort Hood’s problems.

“It would be very hard to fix responsibility on one commander,” Chris Swecker, 

chairman of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, testified before the subcommittee on Wednesday.

Many of the commanders failed to take action, particularly after complaints of sexual harassment, he said. Instead, female soldiers were left with few choices for resolving lewd comments and even assaults.

“Victims feared the obvious consequences of reporting,” Swecker said.

The complaints are supposed to be handled by the Criminal Investigation Command but it often lacked skilled agents to bring closure to them, Swecker said.

“What we saw was chronic inexperience” among investigators, he said.

Nevertheless, he tried to sound hopeful by saying Army commanders cooperated fully with his committee’s investigation. They also agreed to adopt all 70 of the committee’s recommendations.

Several members of Congress asked about the risks that similar problems might lurk at other military bases but have not yet been revealed publicly.

Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said, “I think there have been some obvious breakdowns.”

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., described the Review Committee’s report as a good start but added that “the proof is in the pudding” to see whether it results in improvements.

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