Houston Army Recruiters Encounter Outrage, Hostility in Wake of Vanessa Guillen's Death

An enlistment ceremony for Houston residents.
An enlistment ceremony for Houston residents at Halliburton’s headquarters in Houston, Feb. 27, 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Kelvin Ringold)

At Fort Hood, Texas, Army leaders have acknowledged they have to rebuild trust with soldiers following the disappearance and alleged murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, whose family says she was being sexually harassed before she disappeared. But Guillen's tragic saga -- compounded with national outrage over the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody, has also had a profound impact on another Texas-based unit: the Army's Houston Recruiting Battalion.

Battalion recruiters have faced extreme hostility from the public in the aftermath of the deaths of Floyd and Guillen, Lt. Col. Barry Winnegan, the battalion's commander, told Military.com.

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Guillen, 20, disappeared in late April from Fort Hood. Her body was discovered outside the base in July, triggering a public outcry and multiple Army investigations. Floyd, a Black man originally from Houston, who died while in custody of Minneapolis police in late May, has become a symbol of racial injustice in protests across the country.

"When that incident happened with George Floyd and then the incident with Vanessa Guillen, our recruiters experienced pretty serious pushback," Winnegan said.

"When we would call and try to interact with people, people in some instances were using profanity, being very negative to our recruiters, about the awful things that happened to Vanessa Guillen, and how our Army wasn't about diversity and we were racist -- all kinds of comments that were pretty negative."

Winnegan's challenges didn't go unnoticed by Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, the commander of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

"Vanessa Guillen was recruited out of one of those recruiting stations in the Houston footprint," said Vereen, who highlighted Winnegan's battalion and the challenges it faced during an Association of the United States Army event Wednesday.

"[Winnegan] had a tremendous amount of difficulty during the period where we had some heightened, heated civil unrest that was going on across our country."

Vereen did not get into specific details about recruiting numbers for Houston, but he did say the battalion managed to connect with young people, despite the hostility and anger they faced from some.

"That was a challenge, and to be honest with you my hat goes off to this battalion because they operated and they have [been] very successful trying to still talk about the business of our Army and why it is important to join," Vereen said.

Winnegan, who has been in the Army for 23 years, said his military police background helped him set a tone for his recruiters to deal with the situation.

"The whole law enforcement and emergency management background kind of helped me work my way through this," he said. "The first thing they teach us is to remain calm."

Winnegan said the recruiters in his battalion just tried to convey "that what was going on in our country was really a concern for all of us."

"That's all you can do, is be human," said Winnegan, who is Black. "People are upset and they've got good reason to be, but we did continue to push the message on our social media ... that the military, the U.S. Army in particular, is a very diverse, inclusive organization that wants the best for everybody that's on our team."

The heated emotion recruiters saw in Houston eventually abated and the battalion was able to make about 85% of its recruiting mission, said Winnegan, who did not give specific details about recruiting numbers.

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Army has said it met its fiscal 2020 goal of an active-duty end strength of 485,000.

"In the end it did affect our bottom line, but I think we did pretty well," Winnegan said, adding that the pandemic also hampered recruiting efforts in Houston.

"COVID-19 had affected everybody in USAREC, especially when the pandemic first started. There were a lot of people that just didn't want to make a decision ... because they didn't know what the future would hold with this pandemic, and that, coupled with George Floyd and the Vanessa Guillen incidents, just made it extremely hard for a period of time."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: Army Beats 2020 End Strength Goal Despite Major Recruiting Roadblocks

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