Commentary

Actions taken by Army secretary, Congress after Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s death are insufficient

Army secretary addresses report of Fort Hood Independent Review Committee

Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy and the five civilian members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee unveiled the results of a three-month examination of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood and the surrounding military community on Dec. 8.

Fort Hood has garnered international attention after 28 soldiers assigned to the post died in the past year. The most prominent was Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s alleged murder by a fellow soldier who then died by suicide.

As a captain, I was stationed at Fort Hood. Under the right leadership it can embody its nickname, “The Great Place.” Conversely, under the wrong leadership, it can swing low and epitomize the surrounding city of Killeen’s pseudonym, “Kill City.”

Kill City it is.

To address Fort Hood’s challenges, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy released the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report commissioned in July. The FHIRC determined Fort Hood’s leadership was ineffective and created a permissive environment for sexual misconduct to flourish.

A reverent McCarthy thanked the committee members for “their outstanding efforts to provide us with an honest, fact-based assessment of the conditions at Fort Hood and a slate of recommended actions.”

What McCarthy failed to mention was that the Army’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reports sexual misconduct in an annual report. Subsequently, he is required to present the secretary of defense with an action plan to prevent sexual assault within the ranks.

The SAPRO released its 2019 annual report on April 30 after McCarthy signed off on it on March 13. McCarthy proffered in the first paragraph that the Army’s increasing rate of sexual misconduct reports “may be an indicator of increased victim confidence in their chain of command.”

Approximately seven months later, McCarthy finally acknowledged to CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell that the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the Army has increased.

After McCarthy’s admission, I reviewed the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act of 2020. Frankly, Congress has not fulfilled its role in addressing military sexual misconduct, either. The bill was largely a summation of other published, binding documents.

The bill’s definition of sexual harassment was the culmination of Army Regulation 600-20, Chapter 7, DoD Instruction 1020.03, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 120d in its current form.

The bill does offer a new proposal for military victims of sex-related offenses to sue the government for $100,000 after the report of the offense. As a survivor, I am skeptical that victims would subject themselves to be re-victimized for a mere $100,000.

The bill’s sponsors also mandated that the Government Accountability Office report on military absent without leave procedures and that the SecDef submit a report on the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response programs to Congress.

First, the SecDef already provides Congress with an annual report. Second, the GAO has provided Congress with several reports on sexual harassment/assault to drive change without result.

In June 2011, the GAO published its first report on military justice as related to sexual assault. The office determined that the DoD did not hold leaders accountable for the department’s sexual harassment prevention program. Furthermore, the GAO recommended that DoD improve its accountability and develop an oversight framework for sexual harassment.

The DoD finally published a rudimentary Prevention Plan of Action in 2019 to reduce sexual assault in the military. However, the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs punted DoD’s responsibilities to individual military departments to implement by June 2023.

The GAO published another report with similar findings to its 2011 report on May 4, 2020. The GAO highlighted that the DoD did not provide the GAO with the sexual assault program framework it asked for in 2011. Additionally, if the DoD had implemented the recommendations it made over the years, then it would have been able to effectively regulate its sexual harassment policies and programs.

Quickly thereafter, Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Trent Kelly, R-Miss., wrote to then Defense Secretary Mark Esper to echo the GAO’s sentiments. They lamented that it had been 10 years since the DoD committed to eliminating sexual harassment/assault within the military.

Yes, Speier and Kelly, a decade was far too long for Congress, the DoD and its leaders to address the problem. As elected officials whose constitutional responsibility is to oversee the DoD, you are just as culpable for the program failures as the DoD leadership.

Congress must act now and mandate that the DoD develop and implement a detailed prevention plan within six months. Ten years is more than enough time for the nation’s largest employer — with 1.3 million active-duty service members, 750,000 civilian personnel and roughly 811,000 National Guard and Reserve members — to get it done.

Team, we cannot wait another three years for the DoD to finish a plan to combat sexual misconduct that was supposed to be completed in 2011.

We deserve better — people’s lives are at stake.

Just ask the Guillen family.

Gradnigo is a retired lieutenant colonel and an Iraqi War veteran with 22 years of active-duty service in the Army. She lives in Germany.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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