Beyond Fort Hood: Shortfalls in Army's Sexual Assault Prevention Efforts, Experts Say

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Headquarters, Headquarters Company, Medical Department Activity Bavaria, conducts its annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, Stand-Down Day at Rose Barracks, Vilseck, Germany, April 18, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Alain M. Polynice)
Headquarters, Headquarters Company, Medical Department Activity Bavaria, conducts its annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, Stand-Down Day at Rose Barracks, Vilseck, Germany, April 18, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Alain M. Polynice)

Despite the resources devoted to preventing sexual assault in the military, significant shortfalls and oversights are leaving troops vulnerable, Defense Department officials and outside advocates testified to the House Armed Services subcommittee on Military Personnel on Wednesday.

During the hearing, several panelists drew attention to shortcomings in the military's sexual crime prevention efforts.

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In the wake of the Vanessa Guillen case, six personnel from U.S. Army Forces Command's Office of Inspector General, augmented by a trainer from the service's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program and a special victim's counsel from the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, conducted an inspection of the SHARP program and command climate at Fort Hood, Texas, on June 27, said Col. Patrick Wempe, Command Inspector General at FORSCOM. The base visit concluded July 3.

According to an anonymous written survey of more than 225 soldiers at Fort Hood, a majority said they would report if they had been sexually harassed, and nearly all said their leaders take reports of sexual harassment and assault seriously.

"The level of trust in their leadership was high -- 94 percent, based on the survey," Wempe said. "The willingness to report both assault and harassment were 84 percent and 87 percent, respectively."

Troublingly, as cited by USA Today and other outlets, the survey found that more than one-third of female Fort Hood soldiers who took the survey reported experiencing sexual harassment.

Wempe said sexual crime victims are concerned about how they will be perceived by others, which is "one of those various reasons that victims indicated they would not report" incidents.

Dr. Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), called for sophisticated training for SHARP officers to learn to assist sexual harassment victims in a respectful way.

All soldiers receive basic SHARP training within 14 days of joining the military, according to Galbreath.

"In addition," he said, "we've taken a number of different efforts since May 2019 to ensure junior leaders and first-line supervisors will have the skills to be able to address this behavior."

In light of statistics showing the prevalence of sexual harassment, Galbreath acknowledged that service members are not getting the education they need about unacceptable behavior, despite the SHARP training they undergo when they join the Army.

The service announced July 10 it would commence a broader, independent review of "command climate and culture" at Fort Hood. On Thursday, the Army named the five civilian experts who will undertake the review, and said they will assess "historical data and conduct interviews with military members, civilians and members of the local community."

Guillen, 20, was last seen April 22 in a parking lot at Hood. Her body was found June 30 at the Leon River in Bell County, Texas, according to U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. The suspect, Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, took his own life July 1 after police confronted him in Killeen, Texas. Another civilian suspect was arrested and charged with helping Robinson dismember Guillen's body, officials said.

"Fort Hood is becoming a hot spot," said Lucy Del Gaudio, an Army veteran and activist at the grass-roots effort seeking justice for Guillen. "Twenty-three soldiers have died or been found dead in Fort Hood this year, which begs for question."

Del Gaudio called for the Army to set up gender-specific conversations for soldiers who report sexual harassment and assault in the military community. "It should be an independent party practice when it comes to survey initiation."

"Fear of retaliation, as expressed by Spc. Guillen to her family regarding her own sexual harassment, remains a driver for a majority of military sexual trauma survivors to remain silent," said Melissa Bryant, an Army veteran and part of the grass-roots movement.

"The latest data shows 64% of women who reported sexual harassment face retaliation," she added, "and 66% of retaliation reports alleged that retaliators were in the reporters' chain [of command]."

Bryant urged Congress to consider legislative amendments related to changing the report chain within the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act

She called for "allowing removal of bias in the chain of command and taking it to a special prosecutor to be able to have impartiality, investigations, and prosecutions of sex crimes in the military."

"Service members everywhere have bravely raised their voices to demand accountability to call out their perpetrators and demand change now," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Military Personnel. "Sexual harassment, sexual assault and retaliation are never acceptable."

Related: Soldier Vanessa Guillen's Murder Now a Rallying Cry for Lawmakers

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