'Initiation to Fort Hood:' Sexual assault described as rite of passage for female soldiers

Vanessa Guillen Protest
Photo credit Getty Images
By Connecting Vets

This week, an independent committee appointed to investigate the command climate at Fort Hood in Texas published its findings after 90 days on the ground following the death of Sfc. Vanessa Guillen.

The results of the review mandated by Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy in August were ugly -- a “damning indictment of Fort Hood and its leadership,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, described during a House Armed Services Committee hearing this week.

While glowing reviews were not anticipated from the installation home to Guillen which is still investigating the deaths of 28 soldiers this year, the report’s harsh depiction left no question -- Fort Hood must face judgment.

The report included nine overarching findings that declared Fort Hood’s Criminal Investigative Division ineffective, its missing soldier procedures flawed, and its unaddressed crime rates alarming. But above all, the report pointed to sexual harassment and assault prevention at the installation as a failure.

Out of the nine main findings, five concerned the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention (SHARP) program or leadership’s handling of instances of sexual harassment/assault. Of the reports overwhelming 70 total recommendations to improve the post, almost half concerned SHARP.

The SHARP program at Fort Hood does not work, the report found, thanks to “a command climate that failed to instill SHARP program core values” and that has been “permissive of sexual harassment/sexual assault.” The Army-wide program itself is “structurally flawed,” an additional finding said, and the mechanics of the adjudication process have “degraded confidence” in the program. And that’s just the adjudication process for the incidents that are reported -- a significant number are not.

Women at Fort Hood have ‘slipped into survival mode’

The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee (FHIRC) made a concerted effort to interview every single female soldier in certain units at Fort Hood -- including Guillen’s unit. A total of 503 female soldiers were interviewed. Those interviews revealed 93 credible accounts of sexual assault and 217 credible accounts of sexual harassment. In both assault and harassment instances, only around half were reported.

Women at Fort Hood were forced to “slip into survival mode, vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and re-victimized,” the report reads.

Committee member Carrie Ricci, a retired Army JAG Officer who served three years at Fort Hood, said the female soldiers they interviewed came forward with unreported instances of sexual assault and harassment during conversations with the FHIRC because they felt, for the first time, that they would be believed.

“One of the things that the soldiers at Fort Hood, many of them, needed was to be believed, and that was what we did,” Ricci said. “We listened. And so if any of them see this, I want them to know we believe you.”

Leadership, the FHIRC said, was largely to blame for the lack of confidence in the system and the ineffectiveness of the SHARP program at Fort Hood. Leadership at the command level failed to instill the core values of the SHARP program in the forces below them so that the program was “diluted at each level below III Corps, to the point of being barely functional within the enlisted ranks” where 90% of instances of sexual assault/harassment occur.

Overall, only about 55% of soldiers who responded to the III Corps climate survey could demonstrate a working knowledge of critical aspects of the SHARP program. Far from the majority of soldiers could pass an assessment on basic SHARP program knowledge -- and passing only required 50% correct answers.

Just months ago, Army and DoD leadership testified before Congress that a review of Fort Hood’s SHARP program shows the installation meets the Army’s standards. At the time, Congress argued that those standards, then, must change. The FHIRC agreed.

“These are not passing grades in any context. The U. S. Army must not set a bar so low that these numbers are acceptable,” the report reads.

As a result, the report summarized, the SHARP program at Fort Hood “appeared to be compliant on the surface, but was hollow” and “lacked leadership attention.”

And leadership certainly should have known that this issue, specifically at Fort Hood, required attention.

Fort Hood was identified as a high-risk installation for sexual assault -- as far back as 2014.

Using DoD Office of People analytics data and the 2016 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey (WGRA), the estimated risk of sexual assault was determined for all DoD installations. Fort Hood had the highest risk score possible.

Leadership was either aware or should have been aware that sexual assault and harassment was a high-risk concern at Fort Hood -- and they should have led accordingly, the report stated. But how much could leadership at Fort Hood really accomplish against sexual assault/harassment when they themselves were identified in soldier interviews as the offenders?

One of the soldiers interviewed, an E-7, described sexual assault/harassment as “almost like an initiation to Fort Hood.” The E-7 also said, “in my command, I believe sexual harassment happens every single day ... nobody stops it. Leaders turn a blind eye or they themselves are the offenders.”

The reckoning against sexual assault sparked by Sfc. Vanessa Guillen continues

For many, these findings are still not new. Sexual assault and prevention entities within the DoD have reported for years and years that the military has a problem with sexual assault and harassment -- and efforts to impact change have been frustratingly unsuccessful.

But the death of Sfc. Vanessa Guillen has been described as a “reckoning” since the very beginning and has already seemed to impact change in systems within the military that have long been known to need it.

“The tragic death of Vanessa Guillen and a rash of other challenges at Fort Hood forced us to take a critical look at our systems, our policies, and ourselves,” McCarthy said during a Pentagon briefing this week.

Chris Swecker, chair of the FHIRC, said McCarthy’s willingness to order an independent review, his acceptance of all 70 of the committee’s recommendations, and the actions he has already taken so far to implement those recommendations was not expected.

“I think it reflects a willingness on the part of the secretary, the under secretary, and the chief of staff -- to fix things,” Swecker said.

McCarthy has already relieved or suspended 14 leaders at the installation, including two general officers, though not all were named and the what those removals mean remain unclear. He also has already announced a new procedure for missing soldiers per the FHIRC’s recommendations and has appointed the People First Task Force -- a task force specifically created to implement all 70 of the review’s recommendations before March 2021.

“We own the results,” Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville said. “We’ve asked a lot of the Army, Fort Hood, over the last 19 years. We know in the Army that we are not perfect, but what makes us the greatest Army in the world is that we recognize where we must change. We acknowledge our issues and we fix them.”

“I believe in this institution and its officers, noncommissioned officers, soldiers, civilians, and their families with every fiber of my being because of the extraordinary things they do on a daily basis,” McCarthy said. “I'm confident in our leaders' ability to overcome this challenge, and to continue to win our nation's wars while caring for our people.”

Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter at @ecbhowe.