Army Must Take 'Hard Look' at Sexual Assault Prevention Program, Fort Hood Review Finds

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A mural for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in Austin, Texas.
Veronica Carbajal places a candle at a mural for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in Austin, Texas, on Monday July 6, 2020 (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

An independent review of Fort Hood, Texas, in the wake of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen's murder has recommended that the service take a "hard look" at the effectiveness of the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program at all its installations, according to Under Secretary of the Army James McPherson.

The five-member, civilian Fort Hood Independent Review Committee last week briefed Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, McPherson and other senior leaders. The committee made a two-week fact-finding mission to Hood in late summer to examine the command climate and culture at the massive Texas post in the aftermath of Guillen's tragic death, McPherson told Military.com in a recent interview.

"It was hard to read because the theme that came through ... was trust, and we lost the trust of the soldiers and some of the civilians at Fort Hood," he said. "And we know that we have lost the trust of soldiers across the Army to a certain extent."

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Guillen, a 20-year-old 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier, went missing in April after she was allegedly murdered and dismembered by a fellow soldier, Spc. Aaron Robinson. Guillen's remains were discovered and identified in early July. Robinson took his own life that month when police approached him. Cecily Aguilar, a 22-year-old civilian from Killeen, has been arrested and charged with allegedly helping Robinson dispose of Guillen's body.

Guillen's family have accused Robinson of sexually harassing Guillen, but Fort Hood and Army Criminal Investigation Command officials say they have found no credible evidence that she was the victim of sexual harassment.

McPherson said some of the committee's recommendations "had to do with the SHARP program -- how it's staffed, how it's organized. We haven't really taken a hard look at SHARP, and it has been in existence for several years."

"The SHARP office here is very professional, but we put out policy at this level, and we haven't taken a hard look at how that policy is being executed in the field -- that is one of the things that the Fort Hood independent review panel has reminded us we need to do," he continued. "You put out these policies, you put out these directions, but who really follows the implementation when it hits the installations? And that is one of the things we are going to be taking a tough look at."

In mid-September, several lawmakers, from both parties, introduced the "I am Vanessa Guillen Act," which would dramatically reform how the U.S. military handles reports, investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault and harassment. If signed into law, the bill would require each service to establish an Office of the Chief Prosecutor to ensure that charging decisions for sex-related offenses are no longer the responsibility of soldiers' chains of command.

Army leaders are still going through the Fort Hood Committee report and hope to make it available for public review in early December, McPherson said.

"It's a lengthy report; it numbers some 140 pages with several findings and a lot of recommendations," he said. "I think the count is 70-some recommendations. Many of those are focused on Fort Hood, but many of the recommendations can be cast across the entire Army, and we are going to do that."

The report also recommends that leaders spend more time with their units and soldiers to form a tight bond of trust, McPherson said.

Maj. Gen. John Richardson IV, the new deputy commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, started addressing that in September by halting training for a week in an effort to restore trust between the base's soldiers and their leadership -- something that had been damaged in the wake of Guillen's murder.

Senior leaders took the effort a step further in October, announcing at the Association of the United States Army's annual meeting that the service would reduce its reliance on combat training center rotations to relieve some of the demands on the overburdened force.

"Then, we read the independent review panel, and what we discover is that, oftentimes, that squad leader time, that platoon leader time, that company commander time that was spent with soldiers was given up because they were working in the motor pool, because they had to go to the range and qualify tomorrow, and it just affirmed with us the decisions we made earlier that we really have been overtaxing our soldiers with just a tremendous amount of requirements in order to get our readiness up, and we needed to give more time back to that chain of command," McPherson said.

"We are going to put things in place. We are going to put measures into place, and we are going to take action that works at regaining their trust," he added.

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

Related: New Fort Hood Commander Orders Training Pause to Rebuild Soldiers' Trust

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