Investigators tasked with analyzing chronic leadership failures at Fort Hood, Texas, pointed to noncommissioned officers perpetuating a culture of fear and preventing soldiers from reporting crimes.
“There was a serious risk there that should’ve been known by the leadership. The NCOs became the blockers. They did not facilitate or encourage reporting and were part of the shaming of victims,” Chris Swecker, a North Carolina lawyer and former FBI inspector who led the review, told lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday.
In December, the Army fired, suspended or otherwise punished 14 leaders after Fort Hood was rocked by a series of suicides, murders, and cases of sexual assault and harassment. The actions were spurred by the violent death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was missing for nearly two months before her remains were found.
An independent review released in December, led by Swecker, found leaders allowed a command climate to fester in which sexual assault and harassment were commonplace.
“Unfortunately, a ‘business as usual’ approach was taken by Fort Hood leadership causing female soldiers, particularly, in the combat brigades, to slip into survival mode,” the report states, adding they were “vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and re-victimized.”
Investigations dealing with rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment were frequently botched due to inexperienced investigators, and repeat offenders often walked free, according to the report.
“One of the most disturbing things we came across was within two days [investigators] were able to identify two or three serial offenders. … [Fort Hood] didn’t have enough experienced agents on board to connect the dots and address that intelligence,” Swecker said.
He added that it takes about six to seven years for investigators to “hit their stride,” and most military investigators at Fort Hood had less than two years of experience.
Traditionally, someone with that little experience should still be being mentored and not handling serious investigations on their own, he said. Swecker noted there is a retention issue with military investigators, as many seek jobs at places like inspector general’s offices.
Mary Counts, a former FBI supervisory special agent who is also on the review panel, said it was easy to see that Fort Hood had a leadership problem that turned a blind eye to crime, and that offenders often skated by because investigators were overloaded and bounced from case to case.
“During the course of the interviews with the victims and witnesses … we heard textbook [examples of] grooming, serial offender, repeat offender, predator,” Counts told lawmakers. “We were able to put together a list and almost know when a person came in to be interviewed what case they were talking about.
Guillen, a 20-year-old soldier with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, was allegedly murdered and dismembered by Spc. Aaron Robinson in April 2020. Robinson took his own life July 1 when police approached him. A civilian from nearby Killeen, Texas, 22-year-old Cecily Aguilar, has been charged with helping Robinson dispose of Guillen’s body.
The murder prompted widespread outrage at how the military had reportedly failed to protect Guillen before her death and drew renewed attention to the broader problem of sexual assault and harassment in the military.
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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