“The sizable military installation has long come under fire over allegations of coverups and abuse“
The report also pointed to a lack of experience and high turnover within the ranks of the Criminal Investigation Department, leading to problems with launching sufficient investigations.
As it stands, there are more than 1,000 deserters wanted by the U.S. Army and it remains unclear explicitly what is being done to determine their fates. Ten months before Guillen disappeared, Pvt. Gregory Morales also vanished from Fort Hood. His body was unintentionally recovered a few miles from the base in June, during the search for Guillen. He had been listed as AWOL in August 2019 and later as a deserter.
However, for his mother, Kim Wedel, her life in Oklahoma halted as she pleaded for assistance and answers from Fort Hood’s Army Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
“If any other business had this many glaring problems, leadership would be gone. Why did it take an investigation to see that the CID was understaffed and overwhelmed? There was a lack of response from CID, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with me as a mom calling all the time,” Wedel told Fox News.
The Killeen Police Department is heading the investigation into Morales’ death, in which foul play is suspected, according to local reports.
“The Army didn’t care enough to see there was a problem,” Wedel asserted. “I still haven’t really heard from anyone down there. My son will never be at the forefront, and it is shocking how many parents like us are out there. People don’t just disappear because they choose to.”
However, many soldiers and families connected to Fort Hood told Fox News that the personnel changes were merely cosmetic, and they feared “business as usual” when the spotlight faded.
Jennifer Norris, an Air Force veteran and military crime analyst who has focused on Fort Hood issues since 2016, said in order to look forward, one also must look back.
“The deaths ruled a suicide – they need to be investigated. Why did they take their lives? Were those deaths properly investigated? Was it really a suicide, or was it a murder? Everything needs to be questioned,” she added. “We can’t just pretend the last 20 years didn’t happen.”
“Former 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, 2020.”
“The independent review, which was directed by former Secretary McCarthy, arose from the questions and concerns voiced by family members, Congress, and various Hispanic advocacy groups during the investigation into the disappearance and murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén.”
“The committee examined the command climate and culture at Fort Hood and the surrounding military community to determine whether they reflect the Army’s commitment to safety, respect, inclusiveness, diversity, and freedom from sexual harassment.”
“Committee members Chris Swecker, Jonathan Harmon, Carrie Ricci, Queta Rodriguez and Jack White conducted a two-week fact-finding mission to the Texas base, meeting with unit leaders, Soldiers, members of the Guillén family, local officials, law enforcement and community groups.”
Washington, DC – Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, and Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), along with co-leads Reps. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), John Carter (R-TX), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Pete Olson (R-TX), Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. (D-TX), Troy Balderson (R-OH), Jason Crow (D-CO), and Will Hurd (R-TX), and 94 additional co-sponsors, introduced the I am Vanessa Guillén Act in honor of the late SPC Vanessa Guillén and the many survivors of military sexual violence who have bravely come forward in the wake of her disappearance and brutal murder. The legislation responds to these resounding calls for change by offering provisions that would revolutionize the military’s response to missing servicemembers and reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault by making sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice and moving prosecution decisions of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases out of the chain of command. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate today. This morning, following a meeting with the Guillén family, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a commitment to hold a House floor vote on the I am Vanessa Guillén Act. President Trump previously announced his support for the bill during a White House meeting with the Guillén family.
SPC Guillén’s disappearance and brutal murder became the catalyst for long overdue change when her family refused to let her case be neglected by Army leadership at Fort Hood. The Guillén family supports the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, and Chair Speier is also leading a congressional delegation this weekend to Fort Hood to further investigate matters at the base and speak with servicemembers at all levels about their experiences and how best to accelerate the cultural change that is so urgently needed.
Specifically, the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would:
-Move prosecution decisions on sexual assault and sexual harassment cases outside of the chain of command to an Office of the Chief Prosecutor within each military service;
-Create a standalone military offense for sexual harassment;
-Establish trained sexual harassment investigators who are outside of the chain of command of the complainant and the accused;
-Create a confidential reporting process for sexual harassment that is integrated with DoD’s Catch a Serial Offender database;
-Require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the military’s procedures for finding missing servicemembers and compare with procedures used by civilian law enforcement and best practices;
-Require both DoD and GAO to conduct separate evaluations of the military services’ Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) programs; and
-Establish a process by which servicemembers can make claims for negligence and seek compensatory damages against DoD in the case of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
“Military leadership has repeatedly failed to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault, and violent crime at Fort Hood, one of the worst sites for attacks according to Army officials, and throughout the armed forces,” Chair Speier said. “The endless cycle of harassment, assault, and retaliation for those who speak out reveals the deep roots of a toxic culture we must eradicate so that survivors are taken seriously and treated with respect, and assailants are held accountable. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Actwould do this by providing survivors independent investigations for both sexual harassment and sexual assault reports and independent charging decisions for courts-martial. It would also make sexual harassment a criminal offense in the military, helping get to the core of an issue that too often leads to violence and destroys careers, and lives. The Guillén family and legions of former and current servicemembers are demanding bold change. Congress must seize this moment and deliver on that demand for change by passing the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.”
“The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue – it’s an American issue,” Congressman Mullin said. “We must strengthen the military’s ability to protect its most important resource, which is the people who willingly sign-up to protect all Americans. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act will also encourage survivors to come forward to report sexual assaults and sexual harassment and to provide justice. This is about protecting our men and women in uniform and I will keep fighting so no family has to go through what the Guillén family has gone through.”
“From the moment I started working with the Guillén family in May, I made it clear I would not stop until we found Vanessa and got justice in her name,” Congresswoman Garcia said. “The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020 is a transformative and comprehensive bill that will help save lives and give our soldiers an avenue to report sexual assault and harassment without fear – a lasting legacy in honor of Vanessa. I want the Guillén family to know that Congress, the Houston region, and the entire world stands with you and we won’t stop until we get justice for Vanessa.”
“First and foremost, my heart goes out to the Guillén family, no one should ever have to experience the pain they’ve experienced,” Congressman Carter said. “The men and women that selflessly serve our nation deserve to feel safe to report misconduct and feel confident that their issues will be fairly handled. There is absolutely no place for sexual misconduct in the United States military and we must take these steps to ensure that accountability is realized.”
“The unspeakable tragedy of Specialist Vanessa Guillén’s murder has shed new light and revealed to the American public the epidemic of unchecked sexual harassment and assault that too many service members have suffered,” Congresswoman Escobar said. “Specialist Guillén – and all servicemembers – deserve respect and justice, and it’s our obligation to protect those who bravely put their lives on the line for our country. We can’t continue the same approaches that have failed victims. Congress must respond to this moment of reckoning with new solutions to tackle this epidemic and pass the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.”
“The tragedy that befell PFC Vanessa Guillén was horrific and reflects a growing problem in our Armed Forces. Our military members should never fear harassment or violence while defending our nation,” Congressman Olson said. “As a Navy veteran, I’m proud to support the I am Vanessa Guillen Act, which is an important step towards getting justice for PFC Guillén and other service members like her. It ensures there is a stand-alone military offense for sexual harassment and requires the GAO to review how our military processes missing service members in cases of suspected foul play compared to civilian law enforcement. By working together and demanding accountability, we can prevent the next tragedy. Our military must maintain higher standards and we will not be silent on this issue.”
“Year after year, we see an increase in reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military and the same statements from military leadership about how unacceptable they are. It’s far past time we take bold action to bring accountability to the system and give survivors support,” Congressman Cisneros said. “In the memory of Specialist Vanessa Guillén, Republicans and Democrats are coming together to make legislative fixes to protect our men and women in uniform. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing the bipartisan I am Vanessa Guillén Act to provide the necessary support and resources for survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military. Our servicemembers and military families deserve to have the peace of mind that they’ll be heard and treated with dignity and respect.”
“Ohio is home to thousands of active duty servicemembers who risk their lives for our nation, and in return, it’s our country’s obligation to ensure their safety,” Congressman Balderson said. “In honor of Vanessa Guillén, this legislation will take important steps to ensure survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military can tell their stories without retribution and seek the justice they deserve.”
“As a soldier, I remember going to basic training to learn everything from marksmanship to the chain of command. The military is supposed to train new recruits on the essential tasks of the job, but we still don’t do nearly enough to address sexual assault in the ranks. We need to make sure we are creating a system and culture of accountability in the military to protect our women and men in uniform. For too long, sexual assault and violence has gone unaddressed,” Congressman Crow said. “The military failed Vanessa Guillén but I refuse to let Congress fail her or her family. It is Congress that decides what kind of military we have and now it is Congress’ responsibility to step up and pass the I AM Vanessa Guillén to protect our women and men in uniform.”
“We must work to ensure what happened to Vanessa Guillén never happens again,” Congressman Hurd said.“The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020 will protect soldiers like Vanessa by ensuring independent investigations occur in assault and harassment cases. This will better safeguard our soldiers from retaliation and help prevent these atrocious acts from ever happening in the first place.”
“Vanessa Guillén’s story makes painfully clear the need for a better response to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military,” Senator Hirono said. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act knocks down barriers to reporting sexual harassment and sexual assault and directly addresses the culture that protects the perpetrators of these crimes. It’s time to make a system that respects and protects survivors.”
The I Am Vanessa Guillén Actwill fundamentally reform reporting and investigation of sexual harassment in the military and transform prosecution of sexual harassment and assault by empowering an independent prosecutor, within each military service, to bring charges. The bill will also allow servicemembers who were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted to pursue monetary claims against DoD and will also require a comprehensive GAO review of the military’s sexual harassment and assault prevention and response programs, as well as the military’s procedures for responding to missing servicemembers.
A fact sheet and the text of the bill are attached to this press release.
*Submitted to the House Armed Services Committee on September 11, 2020 and received no response
Dear House Armed Services Committee:
I accidentally stumbled upon Fort Hood while conducting research on the non combat deaths of female service members overseas. Fort Hood, along with a few other big Army bases in the U.S., was the common denominator in non combat death overseas. I also learned there are countless numbers of non combat deaths of male service members as well. They shouldn’t have to face death as a way to escape their situation (whether they are a victim of crime and/or it’s a mental health emergency). This issue in and of itself is its own animal and the reason we need policy enacted immediately to create a “bug out” plan for those in danger (or mental health emergencies) in overseas locations, especially if the chain of command fails them. There is no 911 overseas. Why is it the military is not accountable to the American public with the outcome of the investigations of a U.S. service member’s death? They conveniently get to hide behind the non combat death label and because they don’t disclose why or how the service member died in most cases, we are not able to make informed consent as to whether we want to join an organization that appears to hide their misdeeds in an effort to protect the reputation of the institution. I was inspired to look into the other non combat deaths of women overseas after learning the military labeled the obvious rape and murder of LaVena Johnson as a suicide. My research found this isn’t an anomaly, this is a pattern.
After noticing the pattern of the same bases tied to the non combat deaths overseas, I decided to start researching crime in and around the bases in question. Crime knows no boundaries. I took a look at JBLM, Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Fort Carson, Fort Campbell, JBER, Fort Wainwright, Camp Pendleton, etc. I not only discovered violent crime in and around the bases but I discovered suicide and homicide in garrison were significant issues as well. In late 2016, I noticed a large cluster of deaths at Fort Hood on the heels of learning about all the other violent crime, non combat death and suicide at Fort Hood since 9/11/2001. I was especially upset with the way Fort Hood handled the missing person case of Dakota Stump and how they treated his family. As a result of me taking an interest in the issues at Fort Hood, families of the fallen started contacting me. What I learned collectively was startling. Please keep in mind, each family didn’t know about my conversations with the other families as all this information is considered confidential unless they want to tell their loved ones story on my website: www.militaryjusticeforall.com
As a result of the intel I was getting from families of the fallen at Fort Hood, I decided I was going to start paying closer attention to what was going on at this base. It was by far the most problematic compared to any other base. But please understand Fort Hood is symbolic of the other bases; they all have these same problems. The Army is by far the worst offender concerning death and violent crime in the military. The patterns that emerged from the Fort Hood families included lack of interest in missing persons cases, mislabeling deaths, shoddy death investigations, reports and information from Army leadership that didn’t add up or make sense, evidence goes missing, computer devices and phones are erased, secretiveness, dismissiveness, misleading, and cover-up. When it comes to an untimely or dubious death, it’s hard to find a family who won’t stop fighting for their loved one until justice is served. No justice, no peace. We currently have a group of families at Fort Hood and elsewhere who want to file a class action lawsuit to get the suspicious deaths of their loved ones reopened so they can be investigated properly by independent investigators. The Army did not investigate each death as a homicide until ruled out, therefore the scene was not preserved for evidence collection; they quickly ruled the death a suicide and moved on. According to Stars and Stripes, in the last five years, we’ve lost 165 soldiers at Fort Hood and 70 of those deaths were deaths ruled suicide. I have not included all cases because a lot of families have not come forward to share their story publicly because they are heartbroken, traumatized, confused, and overwhelmed. This experience leaves the families feeling helpless. Even if the death was in fact a suicide, these families want answers, they want the truth, and they want an avenue to find the truth. I was so concerned with the number of deaths stateside at Fort Hood, I went to Washington D.C. in December 2017 to ask for help and it fell on deaf ears including the office of the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, whose home of record is listed as Brockton, Mass., was found [deceased] near Lake Polk in Temple. He entered the Army in September 2016 as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist and has been assigned to the 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB), 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division since April 2019. Fernandes’ awards and decorations include the Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Army Service Ribbon.
Fernandes was last seen in Killeen on Aug 17. When he was reported absent on Aug. 18, Soldiers from his unit initiated a thorough search for him, both on and off post while cooperating with the Killeen Police Department and U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) in an attempt to find him. The unit distributed his photograph, searched motorpools, parking lots, barracks, and headquarters buildings. Members of his unit visited local hotels and hospitals throughout Central Texas trying to find him as they expanded their search efforts.
The unit is cooperating with local authorities from the cities of Killeen and Temple as this incident remains under investigation. The Division will continue to support the Fernandes Family during this difficult time and requests everyone respects their privacy during this time of grief.
Massachusetts lawmakers write “evidence suggests that the Army failed to give him the proper support and care that he needed while serving at Fort Hood” Massachusetts (September 4, 2020) – U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Congressman Stephen F. Lynch (MA-01) today called on the independent review panel investigating the command climate and culture at U.S. Army Base Fort Hood, Texas to include the case of Army Sergeant Elder Fernandes in its review of the base. Sergeant Fernandes, a 23 year-old native of Brockton, Massachusetts who was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, was found dead on August 25 after having gone missing on August 17. Shortly after he was reported missing, public reports revealed that in May of this year Sergeant Fernandes had reported a sexual assault allegation against a member of his chain of command and also became the target of bullying, hazing, and harassment. The Fort Hood independent review panel was created before Sgt. Fernandes’s disappearance, so the Massachusetts lawmakers are asking the panel to ensure it includes his case in the scope of their review and report.
In their letter, the lawmakers urged the Fort Hood panel to review the following issues:
The circumstances surrounding Sergeant Fernandes’s treatment by commanding officers and peers while serving at Fort Hood, including allegations of sexual assault, bullying, hazing, or harassment;
The adequacy of the investigation conducted by the Army of his reported sexual assault;
The circumstances surrounding his disappearance and death, including the Army’s coordination with local and state law enforcement in the search for him after he was reported missing, and;
The adequacy of Army’s coordination with and treatment of Sergeant Fernandes’s family, including but not limited to information-sharing during the search for Sergeant Fernandes and in the period after his body was discovered, and the release of his medical, service, and treatment records thereafter.
“Although an Army-led investigation remains ongoing into the cause and circumstances of Sergeant Fernandes’s death, the evidence suggests that the Army failed to give him the proper support and care that he needed while serving at Fort Hood,” write the lawmakers in the their letter. “As you conduct your independent, comprehensive review of Fort Hood, we urge you to consider the facts of Sergeant Fernandes’s case. We will do everything we can to ensure that Sergeant Fernandes receives the justice he deserves, that Army leaders are held accountable, and to prevent harm to any other soldiers at Fort Hood. We stand by, ready to assist in your review in any way possible, and we look forward to seeing your final report.”
Senators Warren and Markey along with Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.) today sent a bipartisan request to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Ok.) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asking that the Committee hold a public hearing to probe the findings and recommendations of the independent review panel on the command climate and culture at U.S. Army Base Fort Hood, Texas.
“In the last five years, 165 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood have died, according to the Fort Hood Public Affairs Office, which regularly released information on soldiers’ death until a 2018 decision to stop the practice. The post was an outlier in this level of transparency.
In those years, seven soldiers died by homicide, while six died in a combat zone. The deaths of 70 soldiers were ruled suicides, and on- and off-base accidents resulted in the deaths of 60 soldiers.”
“Air Force veteran Jennifer Norris believes Fort Hood’s current situation has been years in the making.
For the past decade, Norris, a trained social worker with a master’s degree in public policy, has been tracking crimes committed by and against service members and advocating for reform. She posts her research on her website, Military Justice for All.
She first focused her research on several large military bases, but after noticing a trend of Fort Hood deaths, Norris narrowed her efforts to the Texas post.
‘I didn’t set up to go after Fort Hood at all. It’s a compilation of systematic issues,’ she said.
At the end of 2017, Norris used her own money to travel from her home in Maine to Washington to meet with lawmakers. By the time she got home, Norris said she thought everyone had moved on without intending to address the problems.
‘The other bases are nothing like Fort Hood is right now,’ she said. ‘I think the anomaly with Fort Hood is that its isolated and that it’s such an economic powerhouse in the community that it’s in everybody’s best interest to protect it so they can protect themselves.’”
While investigators searched for Spc. Vanessa Guillen, the skeletal remains of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales were found near Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. His mother, Kim Wedel, wishes investigators looked for her son like they did Guillen. He had been missing for ten months. Once former Fort Hood soldier Jorgina Butler read about the disappearance and death of Guillen, she said it returned her to the night she was sexually by a staff sergeant in 2009. On July 29, 2020, lawmakers plan to hold a congressional hearing in Washington D.C. focused on the review of Fort Hood’s handling of sexual misconduct in the wake of a national outcry for justice for Guillen and her family. –Austin American-Statesman (July 28, 2020)
Yet another body was recovered near Fort Hood army base in Texas. This is the fourth dead soldier found there in a month, further adding to the compound’s robust history of violence and harassment toward personnel. -RT America (July 29, 2020)
“While investigators searched for Spc. Vanessa Guillen, the skeletal remains of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales were found near Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. His mother, Kim Wedel, wishes investigators looked for her son like they did Guillen. He had been missing for ten months. Once former Fort Hood soldier Jorgina Butler read about the disappearance and death of Guillen, she said it returned her to the night she was sexually by a staff sergeant in 2009. On July 29, 2020, lawmakers plan to hold a congressional hearing in Washington D.C. focused on the review of Fort Hood’s handling of sexual misconduct in the wake of a national outcry for justice for Guillen and her family.” –Austin American-Statesman (July 28, 2020)
However, the lack of historical violent crime data from the post has not stopped one military veteran from tracking it on her own.
Jennifer Norris, who served in the U.S. Air Force, researches and writes about Fort Hood crime on her blog, “Military Justice for All.”
Norris, who said she was sexually assaulted by one of her supervisors in the military, switched from only researching sexual assaults to also delving into non-combat deaths of service members in recent years.
Norris set up Google alerts for new stories about deaths in and around military installations, thinking that one day she could prove to Congress that some deaths were related to sexual assault or harassment.
Norris said her data for Fort Hood shows that 138 of its soldiers have died stateside since 2016. Not counting Guillen, three of the deaths this year were determined to be homicides.
Haug said he could not confirm the number Norris provided, adding that the size of Fort Hood, spread across 218,000 acres in southwestern Bell and southeastern Coryell counties in Central Texas, should be taken into account when looking at violent crime.
He said it’s about the size of New York City, with 36,500 soldiers assigned to it with more than 100,000 family members. By comparison, the average Air Force base only has 5,000 personnel assigned to it, he said.
Norris took particular interest in Fort Hood after a pattern emerged while interviewing families of slain soldiers there. Many of those families felt the Army had not properly investigated or searched for their loved ones after their disappearance, she said.
“And the stories are still coming in.”
Read more from the Austin American-Statesmanhere. (MJFA added links)
In the last 4 years from January 2016 to present, Fort Hood on average lost 36 soldiers a year. If you divide 36 by 12 months, that’s an average of 3 soldiers a month. We must find out WHY so we can prevent these untimely deaths and save the precious lives and futures of these mostly young soldiers. The average age at time of death is 28 years old and each death has a ripple effect on the families, friends, and communities left behind.
Billy Jensen & Paul Holes of The Murder Squad released a must listen to podcast about the issues at Fort Hood. They made a great case for the improvement of sexual harassment, sexual assault, missing persons cases, and murder investigations. They also asked us to sign the petitions for Vanessa Guillen and LaVena Johnson. (Source: Jensen & Holes)
“The Military Justice Improvement Act would take the prosecution of sexual assault and other serious crimes, such as murder, out of the chain of command. It would keep those crimes in the military justice system, but put the decision to prosecute them into the hands of actual military prosecutors who are trained to deal with complex legal issues.” –Senator Kirsten Gillbrand (Military Times, July 1, 2019)