Investigators point to leadership and investigative failures at Fort Hood in wake of service member deaths

The Army punished several senior officers following an independent investigation into the climate and culture at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. The investigators who carried out the review will appear before Congress on March 16. By Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann, CNN

(CNN) -- The commander of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command told lawmakers on Tuesday that it is "not normal" that Fort Hood service members and families feel unsafe because of the level of crime there.

"No, that is not normal for a family to feel unsafe on our military base," Maj. Gen. Donna Martin told Rep. Sylvia Garcia, under questioning from the Texas Democratic congresswoman and other members of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel.

"We're going to work really hard to ensure that our families feel safe on the installation," Martin committed later.

The Army commander appeared before the panel Tuesday with other investigators who had carried out an independent review into the climate and culture at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. The investigation, prompted by the killing of 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillen and deaths of several other service members on the base last year, found that the Army investigators tasked with reviewing complex crimes at Fort Hood were vastly inexperienced, overwhelmed and understaffed, resulting in failures to protect service members and their families.

The Army punished 14 senior officers at the base in December after the investigation's findings were released, with the officers being "relieved or suspended from their positions," the Army announced at the time. Fort Hood has a population of 60,000, including nearly 37,000 service members.

But punishing the senior officers, while an important first step, won't solve the problems at Fort Hood, the investigators suggested Tuesday.

Swecker told lawmakers his review team commissioned 49 research projects with West Point Military Academy to examine rates of different crimes at Fort Hood compared to other military bases. Fort Hood was an outlier in every case, he said.

"Their comment to us was they had never seen a situation where one base had stood out as an outlier in terms of AWOL, in terms of deserters, in terms of drug usage and drug arrests and positive drug tests, felony cases. I mean, of the 49 it was striking, they said, to see that one base was such an outlier in terms of all the 49 different areas we had them look at," Swecker said.

Swecker and two other members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee who testified at the hearing said the issues at Fort Hood do not all stem from inexperienced investigators, but rather represent a systemic leadership failure from the top down.

A failure to inform service members how to get help if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted and use the SHARP program to do so, he said, along with inexperienced investigators working on complex cases, created a "perfect storm" of issues on the base.

"Addressing complex cases was a problem, and without that deterrent -- and without all that good intelligence being harvested and provided to the commanders to take mitigating action -- then that sort of added to the mix, as Andy described it, is a perfect storm. That all came together," Swecker said.

Mary Counts, a former FBI supervisory special agent and a consultant on the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, said SHARP representatives she interviewed at the base told her that three out of four female soldiers ages 18-23 who report to Fort Hood report being sexually assaulted or harassed within three months of being on base. The representatives, Counts said, had described that abuse as "almost an initiation."

"That was unbelievable to me -- one that this was happening, but two that this was known by people who were in the program that were supposed to prevent this kind of behavior," she said. "Again, it goes to leadership: if you know this is happening, you have a responsibility to stop it, and we did not see that."

Former Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said in December that the murder of Guillen had "shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems."

Guillen's remains were found in a shallow grave in July after her disappearance in April of last year. It was later determined she had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer in the armory where she worked, and her body had been moved by her killer, who then killed himself before he could be apprehended.

Since his swearing in, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has repeatedly said that tackling the issue of sexual assault and harassment within the military is a key priority.

"The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks," Austin said at his confirmation hearing.

He established a 90-day commission to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military in his first directive as Secretary of Defense in January, at the direction of President Joe Biden. He has also ordered an urgent review to be carried out in order to determine which US military installations and units are "high-risk" for service members becoming victims of sexual harassment and assault.

"President Biden has ordered a 90-day commission to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military. We will aggressively support that effort. But I do not want to wait 90 days to take action," Austin wrote in a memo in January. "This is a leadership issue. We will lead."

This headline and story have been updated with additional details from Tuesday's hearing.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Share this article: