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Fort Hood soldiers say ‘Great Place’ also known for violence, mistreatment

The Bernie Beck gate at Fort Hood on June 3, 2016, in Fort Hood, Texas. (Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images/TNS)

The killing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen and allegations by her family that she was sexually harassed at Fort Hood reopened old wounds for Jorgina Butler.

Butler, once an Army specialist herself, wept as she described her life in the service nearly a decade ago, remembering what started as a promising career was forever tainted by sexual assault at the hands of a fellow soldier.

Like Guillen, Butler is a Houstonian who enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Fort Hood. One glaring difference is she’s alive today to share her story.

Fort Hood Army veteran Jorgina Butler says that when she read about Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s case, it returned her to the night she was sexually assaulted while stationed at Fort Hood. “I’m not the same person,” Butler says. “And I will never get that person back.” Since the death of Guillen, Butler has started to share her story. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS]

“I packed the wound and covered it up nicely so I could just get through the days, but then seeing her story was re-traumatizing,” said Butler, now a 30-year-old mother of three.

Her story merged with Guillen’s after she joined both active and former soldiers who used the Twitter hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen to share stories of sexual harassment and assault in the military and the system that failed them.

Now, Guillen’s family isn’t the only one demanding answers.

Dearth of data at Fort Hood

Guillen’s family says the 20-year-old was sexually harassed by Spc. Aaron David Robinson, a contention the Army denies. Authorities believe Robinson, a fellow Fort Hood soldier, killed and then dismembered Guillen on April 22. Killeen police said he took his own life on July 1 as officers approached him.

First Lt. Spencer Daulisa pays his respects to a memorial for Spc. Vanessa Guillen outside of Fort Hood in Killeen. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS]

The Army did not immediately provide USA TODAY and the American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network, crime statistics requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

The most recent data on sexual assaults by military installation that is publicly available is from fiscal 2016. The data show 199 allegations of sexual assault at Fort Hood.

By comparison, there were 270 at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.; 168 at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; and 117 at Joint Base San Antonio.

When Rand Corp. controlled for the demographics and the size of each military installation using data from fiscal year 2014, it estimated that Fort Hood was the eighth-riskiest installation for sexual assault for men and the 10th-riskiest for women. Those findings were published in 2018 after some delay, because Rand and the Pentagon disagreed about the findings and how to present them.

A memorial for slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen was set up outside of Fort Hood in Killeen. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS]

Christopher Haug, chief of media relations at Fort Hood, said Fort Hood’s numbers could include sexual assaults that occurred elsewhere.

A fiscal 2019 report the Department of Defense is required to give to Congress every year has the Army’s overall rate of sexual assault at 5.5 reports of sexual assault per 1,000 soldiers, the same as in fiscal year 2018.

However, the lack of historical violent crime data from the post has not stopped one military veteran from tracking it on her own.

Jennifer Norris, who served in the U.S. Air Force, researches and writes about Fort Hood crime on her blog, “Military Justice for All.”

Norris, who said she was sexually assaulted by one of her supervisors in the military, switched from only researching sexual assaults to also delving into non-combat deaths of service members in recent years.

Army veteran Jorgina Butler holds the hat from her old uniform at her home in Houston. Butler joined the military in 2009 when she was 19. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS]

Norris set up Google alerts for new stories about deaths in and around military installations, thinking that one day she could prove to Congress that some deaths were related to sexual assault or harassment.

Norris said her data for Fort Hood shows that 138 of its soldiers have died stateside since 2016. Not counting Guillen, three of the deaths this year were determined to be homicides.

Haug said he could not confirm the number Norris provided, adding that the size of Fort Hood, spread across 218,000 acres in southwestern Bell and southeastern Coryell counties in Central Texas, should be taken into account when looking at violent crime.

He said it’s about the size of New York City, with 36,500 soldiers assigned to it with more than 100,000 family members. By comparison, the average Air Force base only has 5,000 personnel assigned to it, he said.

Norris took particular interest in Fort Hood after a pattern emerged while interviewing families of slain soldiers there. Many of those families felt the Army had not properly investigated or searched for their loved ones after their disappearance, she said.

“And the stories are still coming in,” Norris said about Fort Hood from her computer in Maine.

Fort Hood, ‘a great place’?

Kenneth MacLeish, an anthropologist who wrote a book on the effects of war on Fort Hood soldiers, said the post nicknamed “The Great Place” furnished the bulk of the troops for the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 20 years.

MacLeish said the soldiers went on 12-month tours that were often extended to 15 months. When they returned home, they did grueling pre-deployment field training. He said because of that, the mission took precedence over the soldier’s well-being, something he suspects happens at other Army posts.

“Focusing only on Fort Hood would run the risk of neglecting the ways that problems of safety, mental and behavioral health, and sexual harassment and violence, and lack of accountability and meaningful change are enduring and ubiquitous across the Army as a whole, as well as in the other service branches,” he said.

Several soldiers involved in the sexual harassment/assault response and prevention program, also known as SHARP, have also been convicted of prostituting or otherwise sexually abusing their fellow soldiers over the years.

“I can’t keep track of all the misconduct going on at Fort Hood. There’s a lot,” said Col. Don Christensen, president of the nonprofit organization Protect Our Defenders.

Christensen is an Air Force veteran and remembers the Air Force actively looked for missing personnel.

“The Army — and they have admitted this publicly a number of times after Vanessa Guillen disappeared — does not look for missing soldiers, and that seems to be an Army policy that is unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know any other way to put it. It’s absolutely appalling.”

But attorney John P. Galligan, who represented Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed more than a dozen people in a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, said most in America are ignorant about the U.S. military, especially its criminal justice system, and have wrongfully labeled the post as violent and its leaders as irresponsible.

Galligan, who was stationed at Fort Hood before he retired from the Army, said it often takes time for investigators to find remains and then develop suspects for slain soldiers like Guillen.

“I’m just not that quick to criticize the Army,” Galligan said. “I can understand that it is an emotionally charged issue for the family and relatives and friends, but to translate it into some kind of systematic complaint against the military justice system, I wouldn’t be inclined to buy into it.”

Army investigators have also come to their own defense several times this year, saying they continue to do everything they can to get answers for the families of slain soldiers at Fort Hood.

The Army has added to that narrative, saying there is still no substantial evidence that confirms Guillen was being sexually harassed or assaulted by soldiers on post, which were the allegations that first caused many to question Fort Hood’s protection of its soldiers.

Sexual assault reporting programs

The Army uses one mechanism for reporting sexual harassment and another for sexual assault.

Soldiers suffering harassment can make an informal complaint or a formal complaint. For an informal complaint, the soldier is instructed to tell someone what happened and another person will talk with the harasser if he or she does not correct their behavior on their own.

To make a formal complaint, soldiers must fill out a form within 60 days of when the harassment occurred. They must write what happened, who did it, when and the names of any witnesses. They have to swear to its accuracy. Then, they “should file his or her complaint with the commander at the lowest echelon of command at which the complainant may be assured of receiving a thorough, expeditious and unbiased investigation of the allegations,” according to the Army.

Army CID Special Agent Damon Phelps during a press conference earlier this month that Army CID had uncovered a statement made to Guillen that could be considered potential harassment. However, Phelps said there was no substantial evidence to prove Guillen was sexually harassed nor had she submitted a formal complaint while she was still alive.

Guillen’s family, meanwhile, maintains the soldier told friends within her unit she was being sexually harassed.

Sexual assaults can undergo restricted or unrestricted reporting. Restricted reporting allows a soldier to seek medical treatment after a sexual assault but doesn’t involve criminal investigation unless the soldier changes his or her mind. The Department of Defense said such restricted reports made up just over a quarter of all the 7,825 sexual assaults reported across all military branches in the 2019 fiscal year.

With both forms of reporting, the victim gets assigned a sexual assault response coordinator, or SARC, or a sexual harassment/assault response prevention, or SHARP, specialist. The SARC or SHARP specialist are supposed to be victim advocates who advise them of their unit transfer options and procedures as well as help them seek treatment.

Both are often fellow soldiers in the victim’s unit, though.

Christensen, who became president of Protect Our Defenders after a sexual assault conviction he won as a prosecutor in the Air Force was overturned by a commander, said the system is problematic. He said the military should not be involved in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault whatsoever.

Many sexual assaults in the military go unreported because under military justice rules, unit commanders — not independent prosecutors — decide how to handle cases, and soldiers fear retaliation, victims advocates say.

“We have this concept of blind justice in this country where we try everything we can to make sure that those in the civilian world who make the decision, whether it be the jurors or the prosecutor or the judge, are disinterested,” Christensen said. “But in the military, it starts with an interest, so it’s the exact opposite of what you’d hope for.”

The Defense Department determined that in 2,339 cases in the 2019 fiscal year, “commanders had sufficient evidence and the legal authority to support some form of disciplinary action for an alleged sexual assault offense or other misconduct,” according to the 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. Commanders initiated court martial charges in 34% of those cases.

The same report notes that the Defense Department Office of Investigator General found that 73% of those who complained of retaliation after a sexual assault outcry named a superior in their chain of command.

One former Fort Hood soldier, who asked to remain anonymous for reasons related to her career, said she was not only a victim of sexual assault by a Fort Hood captain, but also was sexually harassed by her SHARP representative in 2018.

The 27-year-old, who showed the Statesman documentation of a congressional inquiry into her claims, said her SHARP representative showed her a picture of his genitalia after she told him of her assault.

“When I made the report, it never moved any further because he himself was doing inappropriate things,” she said. “That’s when I wrote about five different Congress members from Texas to do a congressional inquiry because at that point I had no trust in my unit whatsoever.”

The woman’s allegations were similar to Butler’s, the other former Fort Hood soldier now living in Houston.

Both women, who served at Fort Hood about eight years apart, said the Army closed their cases as assaults rather than sexual assaults.

“I sat down with CID and they told me the case was closed even though nobody had notified me,” Butler said. “They charged him as if we had a fist fight and gave him a reprimand. They didn’t put sexual assault anywhere in his charge.”

“When it comes to the justice system, labeling something as an assault instead of a sexual assault makes a world of difference,” said the woman attacked in 2018. “It basically waters down the incident.

“It basically makes the incident, as bad as it sounds, look better,” she said. “It’s better to say you were assaulted, like beat up, than to say you were sexually assaulted in the Army’s eyes.”

On Wednesday, a U.S. House subcommittee on military personnel heard the results of the Army’s inspection last month of Fort Hood’s SHARP program.

Col. Patrick Wempe, command inspector general for the United States Army Forces Command, said that while SHARP at Fort Hood needed improvement, the program met Army standards.

Wempe said 86% of more than 223 soldiers surveyed said they felt comfortable reporting sexual harassment to leaders while 87% said the same for sexual assault.

However, that data was not separated by gender.

Army officials said they anonymously surveyed 53 women during the inspection and found that one-third reported being sexually harassed by fellow service members.

The Guillen family is calling for a law that would make an outside organization responsible for investigating sexual assault and harassment within the military.

The #IAmVanessaGuillen Twitter hashtag and the soldier behind it has united soldiers who would otherwise be strangers behind a common goal: pushing the Army to confront the longstanding problem of sexual harassment and assault within its ranks.

“When I got out of the military my number one thing I always said to myself is that I wanted to be able to help someone who went through what I went through,” Butler said. “I wanted to be an advocate for women in uniform. I wanted them to know there was light at the end.”

© 2020 Austin American-Statesman