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Advocates Hope First Female Army Secretary Brings Change

Nominee Christine Wormuth has led strategy and policy at the highest levels. Can she lead cultural change as well?

When Christine Wormuth was nominated to be U.S. Army secretary last week, attorney Natalie Khawam’s phone lit up with messages from her clients. 

Khawam has helped service members for years seek justice after sexual assault. She became a national voice last year as she stood beside the tearful family of murdered soldier Spc. Vanessa Guillén. 

Guillén’s body was found outside of Fort Hood, in Texas, in June, and her death brought national attention to longstanding criticisms of how the Army responds to sexual harassment and assault claims in its ranks. Guillen’s family has said she was being sexually harassed before her death but was afraid to report the harassment to her chain of command. 

The Army’s investigation into her murder, released in November, found that systemic leadership failures led to a permissive environment, resulting in higher rates of sexual assaults, harassment, suicides, and murder at Fort Hood than were reported throughout the service.  

Learning that a woman may lead the Army — if confirmed, Wormuth would be the first — has generated excitement about the change and some guardedness, said Khawam, founder of the Whistleblower Law Firm. 

“A lot of my clients texted me news about the announcement of a female secretary,” Khawam said. “Some of them are happy that we have a female in power, to take it from a different perspective.”

Wormuth, a graduate of Williams College and the University of Maryland, has spent more than 25 years in some of the highest government positions in U.S. national security. She was the senior director for defense policy on President Barack Obama’s national security staff and was appointed as defense undersecretary for policy in 2014. She has served on three major panels reshaping the force; the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR; the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance; and the 2014 QDR, which she led. If confirmed, Wormuth will assume responsibility for the Army at a time that the service is struggling with both internal and external change.

“China is a hard, complex problem. Tackling extremism and sexual misconduct in the ranks are hard, complex problems. Lucky for the Army, Wormuth has spent her career tackling hard, complex problems,” said Brent Colburn, who led public affairs at the Pentagon during  the Obama administration. 

Internally, the Army must address the perception that it is not taking sexual assault and racism in its ranks seriously. Last week, a white Fort Jackson soldier was charged with third-degree assault for violently harassing a young Black male taking an afternoon walk in a South Carolina community, telling him, “you're in the wrong neighborhood," and threatening to remove the man by force. 

Also last week Army Times reported on the Army’s failure to prosecute a non-commissioned officer who committed multiple rapes, and continued to attack women years after the first assault took place.

“There are a number of young people who are trying to decide what to do with their lives, and they need to have the sense that not only did the Army take this seriously, but that it's getting better,” said Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who served for years as House Armed Services Committee chairman. “I have no doubt this will be a major priority for her.”

Wormuth likely will lead an Army expecting to compete against the other services for resources related to deterring or fighting China directly. One former Republican committee staff member said Wormuth would likely push for a smaller Army, decreasing the total number of soldiers in order to prioritize modernization.

One of Wormuth’s former deputies conceded that she would face pressure. “The biggest issues I think she's going to have to grapple with are the role of the Army in strategic competition, especially in Asia,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who served under Wormuth in the Pentagon as acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “And, of course, what that means for the size and shape of the Army in an era of flat or near flat budgets.” 

“There's always going to be people who want unadulterated growth in the size of the Army and will use competition with China to push for unadulterated growth in the Army,” Slotkin said. 

What’s needed instead “is to right size the Army, the right mix of forces and recruit, frankly, a different type of officer and enlisted soldier,” she said. “We need to tackle not just issues of sexual assault and diversity and inclusion, but also to attract a more technology savvy, you know, 21st-century soldier.” 

Wormuth has had to navigate sensitive force cuts and culture changes to the Army before, said Loren DeJonge Schulman, who worked for Wormuth at the National Security Council in 2012. 

Schulman worked with Wormuth to create new defense strategic guidance, “which was a critical point in looking forward for the Army and deciding that the Army would no longer size itself for stability operations,” she said.

“That process would not have happened and would not have gone as well if Christine hadn't been the senior director for defense at the time,” said Schulman, now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. “She was absolutely critical to getting the president's regular buy-in, to making sure there was a process that the Pentagon felt heard and comfortable with.” 

Slotkin and Schulman said it’s also a critical symbol for the Army’s workforce to have a woman with her level of experience at the helm. 

“Not only is it important that she's a woman, and the message it sends, it's important that she's equally, deeply, qualified for the job,” Slotkin said. 

“The symbol of her being there and having young women who are in uniform, young women who are civilians, know that it is not only possible, but expected, that a woman would fill those roles is critical to them thinking there's a career for them,” Schulman said. 

Khawam, the attorney for Guillén’s family, said some of her clients texted that they were concerned Wormuth hadn’t served in the military. From her own point of view, Khawam is guardedly optimistic that Wormuth’s lack of military service will bring a more independent view, something she said has hampered the Army’s ability to truly address sexual harassment and assault. One of the biggest changes many outside advocates have sought — a change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would allow sexual assault cases to be handled outside of their chain of command — has been fiercely resisted by previous military leaders who have been unwilling to make that change to the history and culture of the military justice system. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, was asked about that proposal in his confirmation hearing but was non-committal. 

As to whether Wormuth’s gender would make a difference, Khawam said she would have to wait and see. The attorney was displeased with Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, who took over the Army’s investigation into Guillén’s disappearance from Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen in July, 10 days after Vanessa Guillén’s body was found. Khawam said the investigation that followed was a frustrating experience that did a disservice to Guillén and her family.

“I’ve been vocal about my disgust with the head of [Criminal Investigative Division] Gen. Martin,” Khawam said. “I’m all about women’s rights and breaking glass ceilings. But you also have to do the job right. You can’t just be checking the box.” 

Thursday, Apr. 22, will mark the one-year anniversary of Guillén’s murder. Several commemorative events are planned on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers plan to reintroduce the “I am Vanessa Guillén Act,” which would make sexual harassment a stand-alone UCMJ offense. It would take the process of punishing sexual offenses away from the chain of command and have cases handled by an independent prosecutor. 

“I hope she [Wormuth] will continue some of the reforms that [former Secretary] Ryan McCarthy and [Chief of Staff Gen. James] McConville have started with the Army,” Thornberry said. “I think this is a challenging time for all the services. They're all going to have to rethink how they do business.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this article misidentified the rank of Maj. Gen. Donna Martin as a brigadier general. We regret the error.