In April of 2020, Spc. Vanessa Guillen was allegedly sexually harassed, and later murdered on post at Fort Hood, Texas. The programs we have in place to protect Soldiers failed her. We, as Soldiers, must better that process to ensure trust throughout our ranks.
“The challenges at Fort Hood, Texas, have initiated a detailed investigation into the sexual harassment, sexual assault, violent crimes, and other corrosives that exist in our ranks.” These are the words of the first sentence of the message to the force sent out by the Secretary of the Army on Dec. 8, 2020. On the same day, the Army also released the report findings and a new missing Soldier policy. All triggered from the disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Soldier stationed at Fort Hood.
The findings from the investigation were so negative that 14 leaders were dismissed from their post at every echelon all the way up to division and the installation levels. The stings of the results are still reverberating through the ranks without impunity. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston said, “It was clear that leaders at multiple echelons failed to take actions that uphold our values.”
His sentiments towards the crippling report were echoed in rapid succession as results were viewed as a stain on a beloved profession. The pain and disappointment can be felt in the words of the Army National Guard’s highest ranking Noncommissioned Officer, Command Sergeant Major John F. Sampa, “We, the Army National Guard NCO Corps, will not allow these actions found in this report to exist, remain or find its way into the Army National Guard!”
It is time to take responsibility for what goes on in our ranks. As Sergeant Major of the Army Grinston stated, “Responsibility without accountability corrodes the trust necessary to build cohesive teams.” Episodes like the incident involving Guillen degrades the confidence of individuals, the unity of comrades, and the effectiveness of the organization. Put this in perspective; it is the year 2021 with all of the military threats on the horizons from terrorism and near peer hostilities to a global pandemic, and the first orders coming from the newly appointed Secretary of Defense is a review of the military sexual assault prevention programs.
The lessons learned from the scathing report out of Fort Hood must be analyzed and deliberately mulled over to ensure the Kentucky National Guard is doing the right things by its people. In order to do this, leaders and enlisted subordinates alike must trust the process of the existing programs we have in place such as the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP), Equal Opportunity and Inspector General Programs. Too often leaders are failing to adhere to the process fearing not being in control of their units. Likewise, enlisted personnel must find a way to regain confidence in the system and truly understand the organization has their best interest at heart. This was not the case with Guillen. Her family reported that although she was victimized with sexual harassment, which eventually lead to her disappearance and death, she didn’t want to report the sexual harassment out of fear of retaliation.
When asked what can leaders do in order to develop a better trust in the process, Lt. Col. Timothy R. Starke of the 75th Troop Command said, "If senior leaders see SHARP training as nothing more than a percentage to be reached or a block to be checked, Soldiers will see it the same way and it will never become a part of our culture as an organization. SHARP is about treating each other as brothers and sisters, building trust in service-members, family members and the community and ultimately building cohesive teams with high morale and strong retention that are capable of executing their Federal and State missions. The bottom line is that SHARP is not only essential to upholding Army Values, it directly benefits readiness."
Trusting the process means owning the process.
Owning the process is an individual and collective task. The days of assigning personnel to critical positions such as Victim Advocates, Equal Opportunity Leaders and Advisors as an additional duty as a ‘check the box’ exercise have come to an end. The viability and longevity of the organization depends on assigning the right person at the right time into these most essential slots. Leaders must understand that these individuals are a part of his or her key staff; they are just that vital to the organization.
In order to trust the process from an enlisted perspective, Sgt. Maj. David W. Gingerich of the 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade stated that we must first recognize “we are not immune in the Kentucky National Guard to this failure either.”
Understanding this vulnerability is a good starting point. Learning to take every concern seriously and never taking potential victims for granted will help enlisted members to have confidence that the system can and will actually work.
Gingerich reiterated the importance of actually working the process of the designed programs.
“We can best help our Soldiers understand and trust in the process by providing the WHAT, WHO, and WHY when it comes to reporting, said Gingerich. “I’m describing [the process for] sexual assault reporting, but remind anyone involved with a report or complaint of any crime, retaliation or harassment that this information should be handled with the same discretion as Protected Health Information.”
This level of care reinforces that every complaint must be taken seriously.
Victim Advocate Perspective
Victim Advocates (VA) are trained and nationally-certified professionals who are under-utilized in our formations. They are more than the annual briefing coach for leadership or the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency entity within the organization. Victim advocates are deployable assets in the most literal sense. When there’s confusion or uncertainty regarding potential complaints and activities, the expert advice and guidance from these professionals are invaluable.
“It is important for service members to understand that talking to a VA does not mean they have to file a report,” said Annell E. Lough, Victim Advocate Coordinator for the Kentucky National Guard. “VAs are available to answer questions, provide resources and explain what rights are afforded to the victim.
“It is also the mission of the SHARP program to assist the command in the development and implementation of a comprehensive sexual assault prevention program. This mission aims to create a culture of dignity and respect throughout the Kentucky Guard. It is important for every individual from senior leadership down into the ranks to take responsibility for the prevention of sexual harassment and violence within our community,” said Lough.
Trusting the process means ripping the veil away from the theory of doing the right thing to actually doing the right thing. When one Guardsman is hurt, the entire organization feels the pain. It’s time to close the gap between metrics and reality. We must avoid being an organization that is all style and no substance at all cost. Units are training on these required tasks annually, but more enlisted members are reluctant to bring their problems to their leaders.
General Colin Powell once said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day Soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.”
If the Fort Hood incident is any indication, we have a lot of work to do as leaders to begin to solve these problems within our organizations.