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Bill filed in honor of slain Fort Hood soldier aims to protect members of Texas Military Forces

Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 3:10 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 20, 2021 at 5:47 PM CDT
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AUSTIN, Texas (KWTX) - A bill filed in honor of slain Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen aims to protect members of the Texas Military forces from sexual assault and to ensure swift justice for victims, the bill’s author, state Sen. Cesar J. Blanco, D-El Paso, said during a news conference Tuesday.

Senate Bill 623 would establish a sexual assault response coordinator who would sit outside the chain of command of the Texas Army National Guard, Air National Guard and State Guard.

The coordinator would provide certain resources to victims if they wanted them and could refer cases to independent investigators within the Texas Rangers.

“When things like this happen within the chain of command, and the chain of command sweeps it under the rug or makes it disappear, it’s an injustice,” Blanco said at the news conference.

The Texas Legislature has no authority over the U.S. military, but Texas has a state military force of almost 24,000.

Blanco said the large size of the state’s military could catalyze action in other states and even within the U.S. Army.

“If we pass this, we’re going to lead the country, and other states will look at this and potentially implement this throughout the state and really push Congress to take action,” Blanco said.

The Texas Senate passed the bill by unanimous voice vote on April 12 and sent it to the Texas House, where the measure is pending in committee.

“I feel happy because people are paying attention to the case,” Juan Cruz, Vanessa Guilllen’s boyfriend, told KWTX.

Cruz says the bill could encourage action on the national level.

“Hopefully it would encourage a lot of the country; they can see what’s happening inside the military,” Cruz said.

Guillen disappeared a year ago this Thursday.

On Monday, a memorial gate was dedicated at Fort Hood in honor of Guillen, whose death was a catalyst for major changes in Army policies and practices, was dedicated Monday afternoon at Fort Hood.

Lt. Gen. Pat White, who commands III Corps and Fort Hood, announced plans in November 2020 for the gate leading to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment area where Guillen served.

The announcement coincided with the launch of III Corps’ Operation People First, an initiative aimed at building cohesive teams by “getting to know soldiers…certifying leaders…(and) leaders holding leaders accountable.”

In March, the post rolled out another initiative Supporting Warrior Action Team Training, “aimed at identifying harmful behavior and stopping sex crimes before they happen.”

A plaque commemorating Spc. Vanessa Guillen is mounted on the gate.
A plaque commemorating Spc. Vanessa Guillen is mounted on the gate.(Eric Franklin)

Guillen disappeared sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on April 22, 2020 from the parking lot of her 3rd Cavalry Regiment Engineer Squadron Headquarters.

The keys to her car and her barracks room and her ID card and wallet were later found in the armory room where she had worked earlier in the day.

More than two months later, on June 30, 2020, contractors working on a fence along the Leon River discovered what appeared to be human remains.

Investigators searched the area “and identified scattered human remains that appeared to have been placed into a concrete-like substance and buried.”

The remains were later confirmed to be Guillen’s.

Cecily Anne Aguilar, 22, of Killeen, who’s accused of helping her boyfriend dismember and bury Guillen’s body was named in a three-count federal indictment charging one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence and two counts of tampering with evidence.

She remains in custody after pleading not guilty to the charges.

Aguilar, the indictment alleges, conspired with her boyfriend, Spc. Aaron David Robinson, of Calumet City, Ill, “to corruptly alter, destroy, mutilate and conceal evidence, including the victim’s body in order to prevent Robinson from being charged with and prosecuted for any crime” and that Aguilar tampered with evidence in this case, including the victim’s body, to impair its integrity and availability for use in an official proceeding,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a press release.

A chilling federal affidavit says Robinson beat Guillen, with a hammer and that her body was later dismembered and burned.

Robinson shot himself in the head early in the morning on July 1 in the 4700 block of East Rancier Avenue as Killeen officers approached him.

He died at the scene.

Demand for answers sparked review, major changes

The persistent demand for answers from Guillen’s family was a major catalyst for an independent review that led to the relief or suspension of 14 officers and enlisted personnel, the creation of a new Army policy on missing personnel and the formation of a task force to address recommendations of a five-member independent civilian review committee appointed to determine whether the command climate and culture at Fort Hood, and the surrounding military community, reflects the Army’s values, including safety, respect, inclusiveness, and a commitment to diversity, and workplaces and communities free from sexual harassment.

Members of the family of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen attended the dedication ceremony.
Members of the family of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen attended the dedication ceremony.(Eric Franklin)

Army Secretary McCarthy’s actions in December 2020 came in the wake of a year during which 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood died from suicide, homicide, or accidents, including Guillen.

The responsibility for the issues at Fort Hood rests on the shoulders of the post’s leaders, McCarthy said as he, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville and Sgt. Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston briefed the media in December on the Fort Hood Independent Review conducted by a panel of five civilians.

McCarthy relieved Maj. Gen. Scott L. Efflandt, deputy commanding general III Corps; and Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and command sergeant major.

He suspended Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, 1st Cavalry Division commanding general and command sergeant major, pending the outcome of an investigation of the division’s command climate and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.

The names of commanders and leaders at and below the battalion level who “received administrative action” were not released.

The Army also opened a separate investigation into the resourcing, policies and procedures of the 6th Military Police Group, Criminal Investigation Command.

McCarthy announced a new policy “intended to ensure the Army maximizes efforts to find missing soldiers” under which commanders must determine by a “preponderance of evidence that a soldier’s absence is voluntary” in order to classify a soldier as AWOL.

“When one of our teammates does not report for duty, we will change their duty status to ‘absent-unknown’ and take immediate action to find them.”

He also announced the creation of the People First Task Force, including representatives from across the Army to review the committee’s recommendations and “map out a plan to tackle them.”

Independent review found ‘structural flaws’

The five-member independent review committee was appointed in July, 2020

Chris Swecker, Jonathan Harmon, Carrie Ricci, Queta Rodriguez and Jack White, who have a combined 75 years of experience as active-duty military and law-enforcement personnel, arrived at the post on Aug. 30, 2020 to start their two-week review to determine whether the command climate and culture and the surrounding military community, reflects the Army’s values, including safety, respect, inclusiveness, and a commitment to diversity, and workplaces and communities free from sexual harassment.

The 136-page report the committee prepared found the post’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention or SHARP program “has been ineffective, due to a command climate that failed to instill sharp program core values below the brigade level.”

“There is strong evidence that incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Fort Hood are significantly underreported and the SHARP program is “structurally flawed,” the report said.

The report found inefficiencies and deficiencies in Fort Hood’s Criminal Investigation Division, public relations and incident management and says, “there were no established procedures for first line supervisors in ‘failure to report’ situations that define appropriate actions in the critical first 24 hours.”

“The mechanics of the Army’s adjudication processes involving sexual assault and sexual harassment degrade confidence in the sharp program,” the report says, and “there are unaddressed crime problems on Fort Hood, because the installation is in a fully reactive posture.”

“The command climate at Fort Hood has been permissive of sexual harassment (and) sexual assault,” the report says.

The committee interviewed almost 650 Fort Hood soldiers in person, 503 of them women assigned to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Cavalry Division and met with civil rights organizations, area mayors, local law enforcement officials and prosecutors and with the Guillen family.

A confidential survey drew 31,612 responses.

The committee also reviewed off-post homicides involving Pvt. 2nd Class Gregory Scott Morales who disappeared in August 2019 and whose remains were found on June 19, 2020 in a field in Killeen; Shelby Tyler Jones, who was shot to death on March 1,2020 outside of a strip club in Killeen; Spc. Freddy Delacruz, Jr., who died of a gunshot wound on March 14, 2020 in a shooting that left two others dead at an apartment complex in Killeen; Former Fort Hood soldier Michael Steven Wardrobe who died of a gunshot wound on March 23, 2020 during a dispute with a current soldier, and Pfc. Brandon Scott Rosecrans who was shot to death on May 18, 2020 in what court documents said was a dispute over a gun sale.

The review determined there were unaddressed crime issues at Fort Hood, but also found that the crime rates of surrounding cities are low compared to cities outside of other major U.S. military installations.

The review “determined that violent sex crimes and other sex crimes, violent felonies, assault and battery, drug offenses, drunk and disorderly, larceny and other misdemeanors, desertions and AWOL were all higher at Fort Hood compared to FORSCOM averages over the 2016 to 2020 time period.”

“This climate, however, is not attributable to any one commander or command staff. Nor did it spontaneously combust during the review period, or as a direct consequence of recent events. It was a culture that was developed over time out of neglect and persisted over a series of commands that predated 2018. A toxic culture was allowed to harden and set.”

“Many of the command’s actions were clumsy at best and at times insensitive”

The report specifically faults Fort Hood’s commanders, Criminal Investigation Division and Public Affairs Office for missteps after Guillen’s disappearance.

Before Guillen’s murder, the report says, “Fort Hood’s protocols and procedures were inadequate to account for, to safeguard and to determine the whereabouts of missing soldiers in the hours immediately after they went missing.”

And, the report says, Fort Hood’s CID is essentially a training ground.”

“There were simply too few journeyman level Agents to work the complex sex crime and death cases while mentoring the large number of inexperienced and un-credentialed special agents who are constantly transferring in and out.

During the investigation, the report notes, the special agent in charge of the Fort Hood CID transferred to another post amid “one of the most complex and high-profile investigations the office has ever handled.”

Fort Hood’s Public Affairs Office, the report says “found itself unable to adequately inform the public and pragmatically inform public perception. The facts became largely irrelevant as a groundswell of support for false theories and poorly informed accusations took root through social media outlets.”

“To frustrate public relations further, beyond PAO activities, the committee observed a pervasive absence of a human touch in the command’s interactions with the family of Spc. Guillen and with the general public,” the report says.

“Simply put, many of the command’s actions were clumsy at best and at times insensitive.”

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