The family of U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a Houston native whose murder has sparked a national outcry over the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assault, say last week’s leadership shakeup at Fort Hood, in which the base’s top general was demoted, isn’t good enough. The family and their lawyer are set to introduce a forthcoming bill in Guillén’s name next week.
The family marched to the Texas Capitol building Monday to demand an independent congressional investigation into Guillén’s murder and in support of the #IamVanessaGuillén bill that would allow active-duty service members to file claims of sexual harassment or assault to a third-party agency instead of through their military chain of command.
Meanwhile, California Rep. Jackie Speier’s office confirmed to Truthout that she will lead a congressional delegation to Fort Hood this month to look into a strange and mysterious string of deaths and disappearances connected to the sprawling Army base near Killeen, Texas, that includes Guillén’s murder.
The subcommittee Representative Speier chairs, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, along with the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security announced a joint investigation into the chain of command at Fort Hood on Tuesday.
Active-duty GIs, activist veterans, and the families of murdered and disappeared troops began calling for a congressional investigation after Guillén was horrifically bludgeoned to death with a hammer and dismembered by a fellow soldier at the base in late April. After her remains were found on July 1, the soldier suspected of killing her, Spc. Aaron Robinson, shot himself dead as police tried to confront him.
Guillén’s family and their attorney, Natalie Khawam, who is drafting the new bill, allege that Robinson had repeatedly harassed Guillén. Army officials say they have found evidence that others at the base may have harassed her but allegedly have no evidence against Robinson specifically.
Last week, former Fort Hood base commander Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt was removed from his post, following scrutiny of his handling of the Guillén case. He will now serve as deputy commanding general for support. U.S. Army Forces Command Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. John B. Richardson IV has taken over as acting senior commander of the base.
Major General Efflandt was slated to be transferred to Fort Bliss to head the 1st Armored Division but will now remain at Fort Hood until the Army’s ongoing investigations into potential systemic corruption is completed.
The Army also announced that Gen. John Murray is leading a new investigation into actions by the chain of command in Guillén’s case. The widening investigation into the base’s leadership joins at least four other Army-led probes into the matter, including a civilian review committee created by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy investigating the “command climate and culture” at Fort Hood.
The Guillén family has said repeatedly that they don’t trust the Army to investigate itself. They want to see Major General Efflandt not merely demoted, but dishonorably discharged, fired and criminally charged for his failure to protect Guillén and other soldiers killed on the base this year.
Outside the state Capitol building, Lupe Guillén, Vanessa Guillén’s 16-year-old sister, bore her trauma before more than 100 protesters, saying she hasn’t been able to sleep or eat properly for the past four-and-a-half months. Through tears, she demanded the firing of every official in her sister’s chain of command and that police release any video they have of Robinson’s suicide.
She said the Army has changed the timeline and story of the events of April 22, the day of Guillén’s disappearance. She also doubts that there aren’t other witnesses to her sister’s murder or that there isn’t video capturing that day’s events at the heavily surveilled base.
“We still don’t know the truth. We haven’t gotten answers, and yet the Army is trying to cover this up. Cover up after cover up,” she told the crowd. “My sister, a woman and a human being, is not a sexual object. Is that difficult to understand? Put yourself in Vanessa’s position. She didn’t report it. She stayed quiet. Why? Because the Army does not care. She was afraid of retaliation.”
After the rally, she told Truthout she hopes that Representative Speier’s delegation will hold Vanessa’s entire chain of command accountable and will “find out and show the world that [the base’s] lack of safety and respect” is killing its soldiers, and that its leadership is “toxic.”
In addition to the forthcoming congressional delegation and investigation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) accepted a request late last month to look at the implementation and effectiveness of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.
The GAO has yet to respond to requests from Representative Speier and other lawmakers, however, asking for a review of the Army’s missing persons policy, which has also come under scrutiny after Guillén’s disappearance and that of two other soldiers from Fort Hood over the past year.
Last month, Sgt. Elder Fernandes went missing from the base and was found dead eight days later about 30 miles east of the base in Temple, Texas. Before his disappearance, Fernandes had filed a report of abusive sexual contact. Meanwhile, the Killeen Police Department is investigating the death of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, whose remains were found in Killeen in June after going missing in August 2019.
There have been at least 28 deaths this year among the post’s 36,500 soldiers, according to data obtained by the Associated Press from Fort Hood officials. Base officials reported 23 deaths in July that allegedly include seven off-duty accidents, seven suicides, one combat-related death, four homicides, two by natural causes, one that is still undetermined, and one drowning.
Military families and activists are calling for the base to be temporarily shut down until the congressional investigation is completed.
Uriel Guillén, Vanessa Guillén’s cousin, told Truthout he wasn’t surprised by last week’s shakeup at the base, but that it’s just a first step. “[Major General Efflandt] needs to be out. He is a danger to our soldiers. He shouldn’t even be transferred because he’s just going to take those problems to a different base,” he said.
The Guillén family believes organized criminal activity at the base is rampant and runs much deeper than the murders and disappearances that have been spilled out into the spotlight this year. They believe the base’s top brass was actively involved in trying to cover up Guillén’s murder and that the forthcoming congressional investigation could uncover wider corruption.
“They didn’t care about her. My aunt, Gloria [Vanessa’s mother], cried, begged [Fort Hood officials] to close down that base, and they laughed at her. Her being an immigrant woman, they laughed at her, and said, ‘Let’s ignore her. What is she going to do?’” Uriel Guillén told Truthout.
Covering Up Structural Rape Culture
Air Force veteran and military sexual assault survivor Pam Campos-Palma, who leads the Working Families Party’s Vets for the People project, is likewise calling for the base to be shut down. She doubts the Army is accurately reporting the causes of deaths in many of the cases coming out of Fort Hood. Like the police, Campos-Palma says, the military can’t be trusted not to lie when reporting on deaths related to its bases.
“The Army says many of these [deaths] are suicides. Our position is that who’s to say that that’s accurate? Who’s to say that’s true if the Army is investigating itself? If some of these suicides are compelled by toxic command, by a culture of criminality and cover-up, then that should be investigated — and who investigates?” she says.
Campos-Palma testified before one of the subcommittees now leading the investigation, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, in December. The committee held another hearing in July in which Army officials presented figures showing that, of 53 soldiers surveyed at Fort Hood, 18 had reported some type of harassment or assault. U.S. Army Secretary McCarthy said last month that the base has among the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army.
It’s not just Fort Hood. Rates of sexual assault are rising across the military. The Defense Department’s annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, released in April, found 7,825 cases of sexual assault reported in fiscal year 2019, up 3 percent from 6,326 reported in fiscal year 2018. The rate of sexual assault across all military branches was 5.1 per thousand troops.
Campos-Palma also hopes the congressional delegation and investigation will take a deeper look into the base’s structural racism and rape culture, as well as what she calls a toxic culture of promotion that is rendering lower-ranking GIs disposable.
Some of the country’s highest-ranking military generals, like former national security adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, rose up from leadership positions at Fort Hood. Shielding the men in this promotion pipeline, Campos-Palma says, has long been commanders’ first priority.
“There’s more care for the promotability of top career generals and the protection of top career generals while people like Vanessa Guillén and Elder Fernandes are treated as government property and expendable,” she tells Truthout.
Campos-Palma hopes members of Congress will hold other senior leaders whose actions may have played a role in this year’s deaths and disappearances responsible. “It’s not surprising to me that they’ve honed in on one general [Major General Efflandt] in the entire chain on command to kind of make a fall guy,” she says. “This has happened in the past, and my question is where are the other [senior leaders] in this?”
Structural racism and rape culture, she says, are part and parcel of military service: They are “inherent to the culture and even to certain leadership styles.” This structural violence is nothing new; it’s just being made visible in an unprecedented way this year.
Antiwar activist and former Army Col. Ann Wright has long tracked the Army’s stunning rates of sexual assault, as well as Fort Hood’s particular history of sexual violence. She points out that the Army can’t be trusted to accurately characterize deaths on its bases not only in the U.S. but around the world. In fact, she notes, the Army has a history of covering up the deaths of women who were sexually assaulted by mischaracterizing their deaths as “non-combat related injuries” or “suicide.”
During the height of the war in Iraq, several families of women soldiers disputed the Army’s reporting related to certain units and bases in the country with an inordinate number of women GIs who died of “non-combat related injuries” or “suicides.” By 2008, the deaths of at least eight women soldiers from Fort Hood who died on the Camp Taji base in Iraq had been classified this way. Three were raped before their deaths.
“Vanessa Guillén’s disappearance and all the things that have come out about it has brought to the surface, again, the continuing inability of the military to really address what these young men are doing to their fellow soldiers, whether it be women or men,” Wright says, referring to Fernandes as well as Guillén. “I suspect that [Fernandes] probably was not being given much counseling and much help, and if [his death] was indeed his own suicide, which I’m not so sure of, it certainly could be that he was just getting no support at all.”
Commanders at Fort Hood did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment about the Guillén family’s allegations or about how the base has been categorizing this year’s deaths and disappearances.
Activist veterans and military families say that, ultimately, there can be no true justice or accountability for victims of military sexual assault and other forms of violent abuse as long as the military continues to investigate itself and as long as women GIs are expected to report sexual assaults through their chain of command.
“It’s a good-old-boys network, and many of the old boys are the ones in charge of taking the complaints of those who have been sexually assaulted in the chain of command,” Wright says.
That corruption has even seeped into the base’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) unit. In 2015, one Fort Hood sergeant responsible for preventing sexual assaults and counseling assault victims as point man for his battalion’s SHARP unit, Sgt. Gregory McQueen, was busted for pimping cash-strapped women soldiers under his command to higher-ups in a sex ring that lasted at least two years. The judge in the case also found that McQueen aggressively kissed a female soldier against her will, but he wasn’t ultimately charged with sexual assault.
To make matters worse, just last month, two Fort Hood soldiers were arrested on charges related to their involvement in a child sex ring in which nine suspects traded money, drugs and alcohol for sex acts with girls aged 15 and 16 who were actually undercover agents.
Military Sex Assault Bills Gain Steam
The Guillén family says they are traveling to Washington, D.C., to introduce the #IAmVanessaGuillén bill on Capitol Hill September 16 and hopes the legislation will be passed before what would have been been Vanessa Guillén’s 21st birthday on September 30. They plan to hold a massive march in downtown Houston that week.
Guillén family members told Truthout they hope to add a provision to the bill that would temporarily close down Fort Hood while the congressional subcommittees’ investigation is conducted.
Additionally, the national outcry over the base’s pervasive and unmitigated sexual assault among its ranks has prompted Representative Speier and other lawmakers to introduce separate legislation that would establish a confidential reporting process for sexual harassment that is outside of the chain of command and would be integrated with the military’s Catch a Serial Offender Program.
“The #IAmVanessaGuillén movement has become a rallying cry for survivors. Congress must respond to this watershed moment to address the cultural rot that has festered in our armed forces for far too long,” Representative Speier told Truthout in a statement. “We owe it to Spc. Guillén and her family, and to all our servicemembers who have suffered the indignity of sexual harassment or assault and the betrayal of military leadership failing to address those offenses.”
Gloria Guillén, Vanessa Guillén’s mother, met with President Trump at the White House in July, speaking to him via a Spanish-English interpreter. “You have our support, and we’re working on it already, as you know,” Trump told Gloria Guillén, backing the family’s bill.
But despite Trump’s endorsement of the bill, a recent report has called into question the president’s sincerity when it comes to military deaths, with sources telling The Atlantic that Trump disparaged U.S. troops as “suckers” and “losers” for dying in battle.
When asked about the report, Lupe Guillén told Truthout she hadn’t heard about it, but that, “Those soldiers are giving their life away and getting murdered on base. They deserve to be honored and respected.”