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The Army’s largest command is making a significant change to how it handles sexual harassment complaints by moving those investigations out of a soldier’s direct chain of command. The decision comes three months after dozens of recommendations were made by a civilian committee that found the response to sexual assault and harassment at Fort Hood was dismal, to say the least.

Army Forces Command — which consists of more than 750,000 soldiers from the active-duty Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve — said this month that commanders must now choose an investigating officer for formal sexual harassment complaints from outside an accused soldier’s brigade. 

The change was one of 70 recommendations made by the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, which inspected the command climate and culture at Fort Hood in the wake of Spc. Vanessa Guillén’s death last spring. In a 136-page report, the committee said investigations of sexual harassment “must be handled” by an investigating officer “from a different brigade or brigade equivalent than the subject, who are trained by and work closely with a legal advisor.” 

When a soldier made a formal sexual harassment complaint in the past, the complaint was reported to the brigade sexual assault response coordinator, who would immediately refer it to the brigade commander. The commander is required to begin a formal review, called a 15-6 investigation, within 72 hours of receiving the complaint. The commander can investigate the complaint themselves, or appoint someone else to carry out the investigation.

Now, the investigation of a soldier’s complaint will be handed off to an investigating officer outside of the accused soldier’s brigade. That said, the investigator’s findings will still be presented to the General Court-Martial Convening Authority and commander once the investigation is complete — so the soldier’s direct chain of command still has a say in the outcome of a case.

A spokesman for Army Forces Command said that when an investigation is completed, the investigating officer will review the evidence and determine if the investigation “adequately addresses the complaint,” and will make recommendations on what to do next. After a required legal review, the soldier’s commander decides whether to approve or disapprove of the findings or if further investigation is necessary.

Gen. Michael Garrett, the commander of Forces Command, said in a memo announcing the policy that ensuring “investigations are conducted by an outside investigator will aid in building trust and confidence in the sexual harassment/assault response and prevention (SHARP) reporting system.” 

It remains unclear if any other recommendations outlined in the Fort Hood report have been implemented. But the commission found good reason to take investigations out of a soldier’s chain of command: At Fort Hood, there was a total breakdown in trust between soldiers and their commanders to take issues like harassment and assault seriously.

As the committee wrote during its review period, “no commanding general or subordinate echelon commander chose to intervene proactively and mitigate known risks of high crime, sexual assault and sexual harassment.” 

One group of warrant officers and majors interviewed by the committee said they “believe the junior enlisted soldiers do not trust field grade leaders because they see some of those individuals actually committing the acts of misconduct.” And many soldiers who spoke to the committee agreed that non-commissioned officers “are the ones who get away with sexual misconduct.” 

Nearly 30 percent of women said that if someone reported sexual harassment they would be socially excluded, according to a committee poll. Twenty-two percent of women said the person who filed the report would be “blamed for causing problems,” and 18 percent of women said the reporter would be discouraged from moving forward with their harassment complaint. 

A separate survey conducted at Fort Hood from July 2018 to June 2019 showed that 60 percent of women at the installation believed there wouldn’t be any retaliation if they reported sexual harassment, the report said.

But according to one active-duty Army commander, the new policy update will “go a long way to increase transparency and hopefully trust within our organizations.” 

“Having a truly neutral third party as the [investigating officer] can remove a lot of speculation or questions,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.. 

Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and the director of government affairs for the Service Women’s Action Network, said that “of course the investigator” for sexual harassment should come from “outside the accuser’s and the accused’s brigade.”

“But the most critical requirement,” she added, “is that the investigator be a competent investigator with training and experience in investigating sexual harassment and assault.” 

Many responded favorably online when Army Forces Command announced the move. But others said it wasn’t far enough: While this policy update takes sexual harassment investigations out of a soldier’s immediate chain of command, an increasing number of lawmakers, advocates, and service members have called for sexual assault cases to be handled by independent prosecutors. 

The debate was reignited last year after Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén was killed by another soldier at Fort Hood after she told her family she was being sexually harassed by another soldier but was afraid to come forward. Since her death, Guillén’s family has advocated for the passing of the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, which would take investigations of assault and harassment outside the chain of command. 

The issue of command involvement in assault and harassment was largely the focus of a Senate hearing on Wednesday, when three panels of witnesses came before lawmakers to discuss the military’s process and whether it can be improved.

Retired Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the former chief of the Army’s defense lawyers argued against proposed legislation that would remove prosecution authority from the chain of command for things like sexual assault cases, saying commanders would “just as responsible for their service members as they are today, they would just have an emptier toolbox.” 

“It’s paradoxical to leave this responsibility to commanders, but take away a key element of authority and undermine good order and discipline in military readiness,” Morris said. 

But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, strongly disagreed. Gillibrand, a sponsor of the bill, said the military justice system has failed service members, since commanders “are not lawyers,” and are “not doing enough to help survivors.” 

“Every general or commander that has come in front of this body for the past 10 years has told us ‘We’ve got this ma’am. We’ve got this,’” Gillibrand said. “Well, the truth is, they don’t have it. The military justice system simply is in the wrong hands.”

Featured photo: Offerings sit in front of a mural of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen painted on a wall in the south side of Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, July 11, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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