Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy seemed to confirm what many already suspected when he offered a sobering analysis of the fallout surrounding the alleged murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén: there may be something rotten at Fort Hood.
“We are sending down an independent group of investigators to understand the root causes associated with the rise of felonies [and] violent acts and to better understand why this is happening at this installation,” McCarthy said during a press conference at the base on Thursday.
When asked about the alarming number of soldiers who have died on or around Fort Hood in recent months, McCarthy conceded that “the numbers are high here. They are the highest in most cases for sexual assault and harassment, and murders for our entire formation.”
McCarthy arrived at Fort Hood on Wednesday with the intention of talking to soldiers at the installation, along with community leaders, in the wake of the alleged murder of Guillén, which he stated has hit the service “hard.”
McCarthy called Guillén's death “a tipping point” that led to survivors speaking out and sharing “their own trauma,” a reference to the wave of #IamVanessaGuillen social media posts that sought to demonstrate just how widespread sexual harassment and assault are in the ranks of the military.
Guillén's family has maintained that the slain soldier reported that she was being sexually harassed to her superiors before her disappearance in April, though Army investigators have said they haven't found evidence of that yet.
“We must honor [Vanessa's] memory by creating enduring change,” McCarthy said. “As one harassment, one assault, is one too many.”
The Army secretary also addressed previous reports that he had not reached out to Guillén's family.
The attorney representing the Guillén family, Natalie Khawam, had previously told Task & Purpose on Wednesday that she had contacted McCarthy's office at least twice asking for a meeting and hadn't heard back.
She said that the family was “livid” when they learned McCarthy was traveling to Fort Hood and had not reached out (The family did meet with Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville during a memorial at Fort Hood).
McCarthy said on Thursday, however, that “we have not been contacted directly about whether the family would want to meet with me directly,” adding that he sent a written condolence card to the family, and was “very open” to meeting with them.
But Khawam told Task & Purpose that McCarthy saying he's “open” to meeting isn't enough.
“If you're open to meeting with the family, why wouldn't you invite them?” Khawam said. “He's around the corner, and he's got time for press conference and stuff — it's like, is this a publicity stunt?”
In July, McCarthy announced that he was ordering an independent review of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood. On Thursday, he stated that the review would start at the end of August, and that service leaders are open to removing leaders at Fort Hood if the results of the investigation call for it.
McCarthy also said on Thursday that he and McConville have discussed the reporting process for missing soldiers “at length” in the last few weeks. The Army has been criticized since finding the remains of another missing soldier, Pvt. Gregory Scott Morales, while they were searching for Guillén in June.
Morales had originally been deemed absent without leave (AWOL) after he disappeared in August 2019, just days before he was expected to separate from the Army. After finding his remains, the Army announced that foul play “was suspected” in his disappearance.
“This has been a topic of debate at the highest levels of the Army for the last several weeks,” McCarthy explained. “Of just our reporting policies … We're going to take a look at that, and we may make a change related to that downstream.”
Overall, McCarthy said that “anger and frustration” in Guillén's case is “necessary.”
“I'm angry, I'm frustrated, I'm disappointed. I mean, we're heartbroken. … These leaders that we've met over the last 24 hours are incredibly disappointed, too,” he said. “Vanessa's our teammate, and we let her down. We let her family down. And it hurts.”