How Vanessa Guillen’s death changed Fort Hood and the military
A culture change is underway after the military implements a new initiative to build trust between soldiers and leaders following the death of Vanessa Guillen
KILLEEN, Texas –
Fort Hood, Texas: This is an army post that was put under a microscope after two cases of missing soldiers ended in death last year and made national headlines. Post and military leaders have implemented top-down changes in the hope that this will never happen again.
From May 17 to 19, WFAA was granted exclusive access to view the changes on Fort Hood in Killeen. Among the adjustments are new processes to report sexual assault, harassment and better train leaders.
The family of army specialist Vanessa Guillen want changes to happen sooner.
âEvery time I wake up, I think about her. Every time I fall asleep I think about her, âVanessa’s younger sister Lupe told the WFAA.
Vanessa joined the Army in June 2018 and was in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. She drove three hours each weekend to see her family in Houston, arriving at the front door in her uniform. But on April 22, 2020, she disappeared.
On June 30, Vanessa’s remains were found along a river 25 miles from Fort Hood.
Investigators say she was beaten to death by army specialist Aaron Robinson. He committed suicide after escaping from the base during the investigation. His girlfriend Cecily Aguilar would have helped in the murder. She was indicted this week on 11 counts.
âRobinson was the one who allegedly murdered Vanessa, but overall the US military injured my sister,â Lupe said.
Months later, an investigation into the handling of Guillen’s case resulted in the suspension or dismissal of 21 members of the military. The investigation revealed that Vanessa had been sexually harassed by a supervisor and that the leadership of her unit had failed to act or investigate the allegations.
This supervisor was reprimanded and suspended. Natalie Khawam, a lawyer representing Guillen’s family, said Tuesday the person is still employed.
The military investigation did not find a link between the harassment and his murder.
âI have determined that the problems at Fort Hood are directly related to the failures of leadership. Leaders are the engine of culture and are responsible for everything the unit does, âSecretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said in December 2020.
In May, Guillen’s sisters said Vanessa would make the necessary changes to the military, but they said it was still painful to know that she had paid the ultimate price.
“We are here to make sure that her name is not forgotten and that this change has to happen, and it has to happen now,” said Mayra Guillen, one of Vanessa’s sisters.
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The base soldiers who knew Vanessa are still in mourning.
A makeshift memorial that stands just outside the barracks where she lived depicts a smiling Vanessa with layered angel wings and a halo, surrounded by American flags. Flowers have been placed below.
“A year is not long … Guillen will never be forgotten at Fort Hood, of course, and most of the world at this point,” said Major Gabriela “Gabby” Thompson, public affairs officer at the army. Publish. “Not a day goes by that I don’t hear Vanessa’s name.”
In the aftermath of her death, the military said it knew there were things it could change: the experience of soldiers, trust in leaders and culture.
âWe are using this tragedy as a catalyst for change in the military, not just at Fort Hood,â said Thompson.
The trust factor is showing that everyone matters – and the initiative is called Operation People First to the III Corps, including Fort Bliss, Fort Carson, Fort Riley and Fort Hood. It was launched last fall.
âThis is a big seismic culture shift in our military because we’re going to do these things behind closed doors to publicize them,â said Col. Myles Caggins, director of public affairs.
Fort Hood has a new commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, Colonel Kevin Bradley. He said it was not easy to move to a new position after such an important event, but acknowledged that changes needed to be made.
âThese aren’t quick or easy changes,â Bradley said. “They are going to take a lot of time for all of the leaders here to commit to making this a place where everyone is proud to come to work and where everyone felt valued.”
Bradley said the âpeople firstâ mentality means soldiers are human first. It’s about building trust between soldiers and leaders so that when an issue arises, they have confidence that something will be done.
âWe are all first and foremost people. And being a soldier – I mean there are so many different sides that we can sit here and talk about, âThompson said. âBut at the end of the day, you know, I’m a person, you’re a person, a three-star general. We are all people.
New reporting and training for sexual assault, harassment
Leaders have also undergone extensive and up-to-date training so they know every step of the sexual assault and harassment reporting process. There are now 42 full-time professional victim advocates in Fort Hood.
The soldiers also undergo training, which was created with their input, to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place. It’s about getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.
âWe need to keep having these conversations because [if not] we’re just going to end up not having any progress, âsaid Thompson. âAll of this will not help. “
The process for reporting sexual harassment has been changed so that allegations are now investigated by an external investigator and an external sister squad.
“Now that a civilian is in charge, it’s a little more calming,” Vanessa’s sister Mayra Guillen said.
Executives are also now being tested to see if they know sexual harassment protocols before they can be promoted. They are also required to report misconduct. At the other end of the scale, leaders need to spend a certain amount of time getting to know their soldiers in order to build more trust.
In 2020, 31,000 of Fort Hood’s 38,000 soldiers and civilians responded to a confidential survey that was used to shape the People First initiative.
âEveryone is part of the cultural change,â said Caggins, the director of public affairs. âEvery day, 38,000 are highly motivated and dedicated to serving our country. We listen from the bottom up to change the quality of life. It is a great place to serve.
The post also added millions of dollars in housing improvements and added more training and mentoring programs.
The SHARP (Prevention of Assault Against Sexual Harassment) program has been enhanced by adding in-person simulations to the training.
Sisters in Arms is also a new program for women that provides an open space where female soldiers can come together and participate in mentorship. It is also to bond, such as through group taekwondo lessons. Women in the group can also make suggestions to their commanders.
Platoon leader GeneviÃ¨ve Davis said the program helps to better establish communication between female soldiers and senior leaders.
âI think it’s so important for us women to come together, to realize the problems that we all have and to find a way to fix them,â Davis said.
Communicate with families
Leaders are also required to keep in touch with the families of soldiers, for example by making phone calls and sending newsletters to let them know what the soldiers are doing.
âI remember coming home, and I even saw it on the fridge. It was so nice, âsaid the platoon sergeant. Ashlee Ibarra. âIt makes you feel like I’m part of something. I am connected.'”
It’s part of the effort to keep families informed and build a personal relationship to build trust, and, if a soldier goes missing, there is already a point of contact established.
The process for a missing soldier has been formalized across the military. Under the new changes, if a soldier goes missing, the military will contact the family more quickly. The time frame is also shorter for outreach, such as police and local news to help find the soldier.
There are also added lights and emergency call stations, and a missing liaison person. And meInstead of marking a soldier as “AWOL” (absent without permission), they are classified as “absent – category unknown”.
As the processes are updated, there is also a physical change to the position. A new door has been dedicated and named after Vanessa Guillen, since the door leads to the barracks of the 3rd Cavalry regiment.
âPeople think the military is putting us on a pedestal,â Davis said. âWe’re going through the same issues that everyone is facing. We are trying. And we are trying to do everything we can to make sure everyone is safe and they are part of the team here.
âIt’s like an ordinary community in which you live. There will always be issues that we have to resolve. “
Journalist Malini Basu contributed to this report.