A woman assigned to the Army’s Fort Hood would more likely than not be a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault during her tour of duty there.
And any serious incident at the base would be investigated by an Army investigative unit that was chronically understaffed, lacked experience and did not posses the critical police tools needed to solve the crime.
A congressional panel on Tuesday heard some of the findings from one of the Army’s biggest discipline and PR disasters of recent years, capped by the troubled probe into the April 2020 murder of Spec. Vanessa Guillen by a fellow soldier. Testifying on the problems with the Fort Hood Criminal Investigation Division (CID) unit were members of the independent review committee created by former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy last year to look into the command climate and culture problems at the huge Texas base.
“When Spec. Vanessa Guillen was murdered, the investigation was botched and unnecessarily prolonged because the investigators were inexperienced, understaffed and were incapable of basic digital forensics tasks, such as pinging a mobile phone to find its location,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, the California Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel.
“But it is clear to me that the failures extend well beyond one investigation and one military base.”
Fort Hood was used as a training ground for junior CID investigators. Army leaders there were more focused on “checking boxes” on a case file than on identifying leads and suspects to follow, Ms. Speier said, citing the task force report.
“Victims seldom saw the outcome of their cases and there was minimal deterrent value derived,” she said. “A large number of sexual assault cases were lost or dismissed at court-martial partially due to investigations that were rote and lacked essential evidence.”
At the time of the Vanessa Guillen investigation in 2020, more than 90 percent of the CID investigators working cases had fewer than two years of experience, Ms. Speier said.
Mary Counts, a former senior FBI agent who worked with the review panel, said women assigned to Fort Hood quickly learned of the base’s reputation.
“It was almost an initiation to either be sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. That was unbelievable to me,” she said.
Chris Swecker, a former assistant director of the FBI who served as chairman of the review committee, said it wouldn’t be fair to lay the blame at the feet of the individual CID investigators at Fort Hood.
“They themselves are victims of a system,” he testified.
He compared staffing at Fort Hood’s CID detachment to an FBI office with 80 percent brand new agents.
“No investigative agency would staff their office that way,” Mr. Swecker said. “You don’t even hit your stride as an investigator until you have six to seven years in.”
After conducting hundreds of individual and group interviews at the post, the review committee said the priority from the higher-ups was on ensuring readiness for deployments, not on the health and welfare of the individual soldier.
“At the end of the day, leaders have to be held accountable,” said Andrew Bland, a former FBI special agent in charge.
The review committee looked through old case files at Fort Hood and managed to locate several likely serial offenders on the post who had been overlooked by the CID agents. They were able to determine several steps that could have been taken to “run some of these leads to ground,” Mr. Bland said.
“That happens over time. That happens with mentoring,” he said. “That happens by having supervisors who have ‘been there and done that.’”
Mr. Swecker said the military should closely examine personnel opinion surveys on the post which are often designed to identify red flags such as the rate of reporting and whether there continues to be a fear of retaliation from the victims.
“Are they looking at the life cycle of the sexual assault complaint?” he said. “Nobody was doing it then and I’m not sure they’re doing it now.”
Ms. Speier noted that the military often says it has zero tolerance for sexual assault.
“When criminal investigations are broken, it undermines any hope of accountability and does a disservice to brave service members who make an unrestricted report. And that is no way is zero tolerance,” she said.