Lawmakers expressed disgust at hard proof presented in an independent review of Fort Hood, Texas, that found that leaders there allowed a festering culture of sexual harassment and assault, one that forced victims to live in "survival mode."
At a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, the Fort Hood Independent Review panel testified that the command climate "relative to sexual harassment, assaults and prevention at Fort Hood was ineffective to the extent that there is a permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment," said Chris Swecker, chairman of the committee sent to Hood in the aftermath of the disappearance and murder of 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier Spc. Vanessa Guillen.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., commended Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy for recognizing that the conditions at Hood were serious enough to launch the independent review to look at "what is indeed a national tragedy."
"Despite red flags popping up for years, leaders ignored them and carried on, and I quote from the report, 'business as usual, causing female soldiers, particularly in the combat brigades, to slip into survival mode, vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and be revictimized,'" she said.
Speier, who led a congressional delegation to Fort Hood in September, said the report confirmed "what I saw with my own eyes."
The committee's review of Fort Hood found that 1,339 soldiers observed a sexual assault and 2,625 observed incidents of sexual harassment, "but very few actually made a report," she added.
"This report is a damning indictment of Fort Hood and its leadership," Speier said. "I am appalled, and I think the Army should be appalled as well."
During its fact-finding mission to Hood in August, the five-member civilian committee conducted 647 individual interviews, 500 of which were with female soldiers. The committee also held 80 group interviews involving close to 1,800 troops, Swecker said.
"During the review period, no commanding general or subordinate echelon commander chose to intervene proactively and mitigate known risks of high crime, sexual assault and sexual harassment," he said, adding that part of the problem has to do with major flaws in the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program.
"From the III Corps level and below, the SHARP program was chronically under-resourced due to understaffing, lack of training, lack of credentialed SHARP professionals and a lack of funding," he explained.
Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said he was pleased with the level of detail in the committee's findings, adding that he wants to ensure that "change is institutionalized where change is needed and [we] are using what we have learned at Fort Hood as a case study for all leaders."
"Trust is paramount for any military unit or organization," he said. "If soldiers and families feel like leaders don't care about their well-being, keeping them safe from sexual assault, harassment or crime in general or making sure that all are treated with dignity and respect -- then trust is gone."
Kelly stressed that the Army's SHARP professionals need to be of the highest caliber.
"I want to make sure we are getting the best the Army has to offer in these positions, not someone who is about to retire or not a secondary duty," he said. "This should be one of those things like the [inspector general]; it should be considered a key position and, when you leave there, the expectation for doing that job should be to be promoted, not to retire."
The committee has recommended that unit SHARP officials should not be rated by their commanders and that some of the sexual assault response coordinators (SARC) -- who should be the first to take a victim's complaint -- be consolidated into a "very strong civilianized program office" at the corps level, Swecker said.
"It can be led by a civilian or someone at a very high military level, someone who can go toe-to-toe with the corps commander if need be," Swecker said. "That gives a victim an option: You can go to the brigade or you can go all the way up to corps ... and get somewhere you feel comfortable reporting."
The committee also found that information provided by soldiers in command climate surveys was often ignored.
When Speier asked for an example, Swecker said that many female enlisted soldiers had stated in command climate surveys conducted at III Corps, 1st Cavalry Division and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment that they feared retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and assault, but "this incredibly rich information ... just wasn't used."
"What we determined was that these climate surveys were not being used the way they should have been used," he said. "They should have been taken to heart, and it should have stimulated something like going out and talking to your troops."
Speier expressed frustration that Congress has "spent almost $1 billion over the last 10 years on this issue and nothing changes."
"Your report underscores the fact that this culture continues -- that climate surveys are not seriously reviewed and action taken on them," she said. "At some point, we've got to say that we've got to do something differently because this is not working. ... It's becoming frightful, and when you have family members who are asking the question, 'I don't know if it makes sense for my son or daughter to go into the military because I fear for their lives -- not overseas but here at home,' we have a huge problem."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.