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Simply sacking Fort Hood leaders doesn’t solve its problems, investigators say

The 14 leaders fired or suspended at Fort Hood, Texas, this week weren’t singularly responsible for the problems at the installation, according to members of an independent committee members who compiled a lengthy report on the post’s handling of sex crimes, homicides and suicides.

“Our report, I think, was very clear that the problems at Fort Hood were not the result of one commander, they were not the result of one administration, but it was really the result of years of benign neglect in the area of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” said Jonathan Harmon, a West Point graduate and trial lawyer who served on the independent committee, during congressional testimony Wednesday.

The report was sparked by the death and sexual harassment allegations surrounding the case of murdered soldier Spc. Vanessa Guillen. After its findings were presented to the Army secretary and chief of staff, the decision was made to relieve leaders ranging from a two-star down to the squad level, including the commander and senior enlisted soldier of 3rd Cavalry Regiment, to which Guillen belonged.

The commander and senior enlisted soldier from 1st Cavalry Division were also suspended, pending another Army investigation into their unit’s command climate.

The highest officer relieved was Maj. Gen. Scott L. Efflandt. He led Fort Hood while the post’s top officer, Lt. Gen. Pat White, was deployed to Iraq for much of the past year. But the issues raised in the 152-page report on Fort Hood’s wide-ranging command climate issues certainly pre-date Efflandt’s tenure.

Chris Swecker, a former FBI inspector who also served on the committee, agreed that it would be wrong to fix responsibility on any one commander. He noted, however, that firing 14 leaders was “decisive” and “certainly got people’s attention.”

“[Wednesday] morning we were asked by the secretary of the Army to present to all the four stars and three stars in the Army — all 300 — on this very issue and I can tell you that the action on the 14 got their attention,” Swecker said. “It actually surprised us; We didn’t expect to see that.”

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston addresses the report on the Fort Hood Independent Review released Dec. 8, 2020.

The committee had a narrow charter to only look at Fort Hood, but its members have said that the Army should not discount the possibility that its problems may echo across other installations.

What Fort Hood requires, though, is a culture change, according to Harmon. The lack of accountability and commitment to deal with sex crimes must be addressed with greater oversight, he said.

“They divorced the SHARP program from caring about soldiers. It became ‘check-the-box,’” Harmon said. “That’s going to take time to change because it’s been baked into the culture.”

Most sexual assault and harassment victims are low-ranking soldiers, which requires strong oversight from junior leaders at the squad and platoon levels to curb, the committee members said. But a high operations tempo is part of the reason for those lack of connections between leaders and their troops.

“Time being set aside for them to do that is critical, despite operations tempo,” said Queta Rodriguez, a Marine veteran who served on the committee.

Command climate surveys have also been regularly administered at Fort Hood units, as they are at all installations. The surveys reviewed by the committee at Fort Hood “showed ample reason for concern” with regard to the post’s SHARP program. But the committee found little evidence that those surveys were used to take action on the issues they raised, the report stated.

The SHARP program’s actual doctrine isn’t necessarily the problem, according to Carrie Ricci, a retired Army lawyer who also served on the committee. Instead, the issue is the “check-the-box” mentality by commanders who are focused primarily on train-ups and deployments.

“At the brigade level, the [SHARP] program can be made or broken,” said Ricci. “So if there was one place to focus emphasis, it would be at that brigade leadership level.”

Rep. Sylvia García, D-Texas, who has worked with the Guillen family throughout their ordeal and posed questions during the hearing, said she is eager to see the results of a pending investigation led by Army Futures Command boss Gen. John Murray, a four-star officer.

Murray was charged with carrying out an in-depth investigation into the actions taken by the post’s chain of command following the disappearance of Guillen.

“I’m told that the report is complete, that it’s going through some reviews and then it should be released shortly,” García said Wednesday during a call with reporters. “I am waiting for the four-star report so that we could see what referrals are made or not made to see if there’s any criminal negligence.”

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