New Fort Hood Report May Help Change Sexual Assault Prosecutions
Spc. Vanessa Guillén’s sexual harassment was reported by three soldiers. Command failed to act.
As support mounts to move investigations of military sexual assault and harassment out of the chain of command, the most recent investigation into the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén at Fort Hood has provided further evidence for those who say military commanders cannot handle cases of sexual harassment in the ranks.
Guillén told several people she was sexually harassed by a supervisor in the summer of 2019, says the U.S. Army Forces Command report, released Friday. Another supervisor noticed Guillén’s demeanor change and asked her if she was OK. Guillén reported the harassment to that supervisor, and shared the incident with a handful of other close peers and her family. The same supervisor who harassed Guillén that summer did so again soon after.
In all, three soldiers reported the incident. Unit leaders failed to act.
“The findings of the investigation were that inappropriate actions were taken by leaders in the unit when they learned of these allegations of sexual harassment,” Maj. Gen. Gene LeBoeuf, Army Forces Command chief of staff, told reporters Friday.
Last July, Army officials were adamant that Guillén had not been harassed. It took this most recent investigation and 151 interviews to determine that she was after all, LeBoeuf said.
“Her leaders failed to take appropriate action,” LeBouef said more than once, though the investigation results do not provide information on why they failed to act.
The newest investigation results come the same week as a renewed, bipartisan effort to change the way reports of military sexual assault and harassment are investigated. The proposed Military Justice Improvement and Increased Prevention Act would remove prosecutorial authority of cases of military sexual assault and harassment from the chain of command.
While this is far from the first time such a shift has been proposed, it has gained more bipartisan, vocal support since Guillén was murdered. Although her harasser was not the soldier who allegedly killed her, Guillén’s death sparked a national movement against military sexual assault unlike any before.
“Sexual assault in our military is an epidemic and it’s clear that the current system is not working for survivors. Despite repeated efforts to protect our women and men in uniform, rates of harassment and assault continue to rise while prosecutions decline. Congress has a solemn responsibility to protect our service members, and right now we have more work to do,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. said in a statement announcing the MJI-IPA legislation.
In addition to calls from Congress, the change has been suggested by those inside the Pentagon as well. Last week, the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault recommended to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin a “transfer of decision-making authority, for special victims crimes, from commanders to independent judge advocates whether to charge a suspect with a crime, and whether that charge should be tried at court-martial.”
The Army declined to provide details about Guillén’s harasser—including whether or not the soldier had been reprimanded by the Army or faced criminal charges. But the accused is far from the only perpetrator of sexual assault or harassment in the Army who has not faced punishment. Year after year, the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reports show that the vast majority of military sexual assault and harassment cases go unreported.
And those that are reported are not always investigated, as was the case with Guillén.
“If you've got a commander who you don't trust to properly prosecute sexual assaults, then there's a whole lot of other things that that commander is doing that are undermining our ability to get sexual assault under control. And we need to look at those as well,” House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said.
Austin has not commented on the proposed shift, but Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Friday that “we’re looking at all potential solutions that move the needle.”
“I’m a woman in the modern American workplace. I’ve worked in national security, I understand the challenges. I’ve talked to victims,” Hicks said. “It’s not surprising, it’s disheartening.”