The Army has announced a new classification system for missing soldiers in response to an independent review of Fort Hood, Texas that found that many sergeants showed an “unwillingness or lack of ability” to keep track of their soldiers.
The new policy is designed to create greater urgency to find soldiers when they fail to report for duty. It comes in the aftermath of the disappearance and murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen and other Hood soldiers who were found dead after being listed as absent without leave.
Guillen, a 20-year-old 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier, went missing in April. It wasn’t until July that her remains were discovered and identified. She was allegedly murdered by a fellow soldier, Spc. Aaron Robinson, shortly after leaving base.
Guillen’s murder prompted the Army to form a five-member, civilian Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, which made a two-week fact-finding mission to Hood in late summer to examine the command climate and culture at the massive post.
“The murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems,” McCarthy told reporters at the Pentagon today.
In response to the findings of the independent review, McCarthy signed a directive giving clear guidelines to leaders on actions to take when soldiers are missing from duty.
“The policy will assist in tracking and finding missing soldiers,” McCarthy said. “It clarifies expectations and responsibilities of unit commanders and [Army] law enforcement authorities focusing on the first 48 hours of when a soldier is missing.”
Under the new policy, commanders must determine from evidence that a soldier’s absence is voluntary to classify their duty status as AWOL.
Otherwise, commanders will classify absent personnel as “missing,” and the Army will simultaneously initiate a “duty status whereabouts unknown” (DUSTWUN) casualty case, according to an Army news release on the policy.
Opening a DUSTWUN casualty case is designed to provide the soldier’s family with a liaison officer while it attempts to locate the missing soldier.
Guillen wasn’t the only Fort Hood soldier never again seen alive after going missing. Pvt. Gregory Morales was last seen on Aug. 19, 2019, days before he was set to be discharged from the service. He was originally classified as AWOL and later listed as a deserter.
Morales’ remains were discovered in a field on June 19 as investigators were searching for Guillen, leading Army officials to suspect his death was the result of foul play.
The independent review committee found that the command climate didn’t recognize “the slippage in accountability procedures and unwillingness or lack of ability of noncommissioned officers to keep track of their subordinates,” according to the report.
“The accountability for soldiers at the first muster, or various musters during the day, had slipped, particularly during COVID-19,” said Chris Swecker, chairman of the review committee and retired assistant director for the FBI.
Part of the problem was that NCOs didn’t seem to know enough about their soldiers, he said; the other part of the problem was “with all the regulations and all the protocols in the Army and all the procedures, there was none for a failure to report.”
“There are rules and procedures around AWOL and when to carry that as a status … but at the front, first-line level, each NCO had to rely on their own devices and their own judgment and their own experience as to whether that failure to report was under suspicious circumstances or circumstances where the soldier might be in jeopardy,” said Swecker, who applauded the Army’s new policy for missing soldiers.
“It starts on hour one. Any missing person case, the first 24 hours is extremely critical; you can’t get started 24 hours into it. You have to start on Hour One.
The review included nine findings and 70 recommendations addressing major flaws in the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) program at Hood, as well as a “command climate at Fort Hood that that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” McCarthy said.
The report also found Fort Hood’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) detachment “was under-experienced and over-assigned, factors which adversely impacted investigations of sex crimes and soldier deaths,” according to the Army release.
As a result of the committee’s findings, the Army announced today it has relieved or suspended 14 Fort Hood leaders, firing Maj. Gen. Scott L. Efflandt, deputy commanding general for Support at III Corps, Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and command sergeant major.
“We are holding leaders accountable, and we will fix this,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said, adding that he had talked to Guillen’s mother, Gloria, about the actions the Army is taking.
“I told her that we are going to fix these issues, and change, the culture that allowed them to happen. I told her we must and will provide a safe, secure environment for America’s sons and daughters serving in the Army.”
— Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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