The Courage of the NCOs on Fort Hood Who Spoke Up

LTG Pat White, Commanding General of Fort Hood, responded on facebook to an article written by The Intercept detailing the fears of seven anonymous NCOs and their unanimous opinion that the leadership on Fort Hood had failed to protect the soldiers stationed there.

LTG White told these anonymous NCOs to “use their personal courage and call me” in his statement.

We’re told by this leader, and many more, that the chain of command is intact, and if only a person was to step forward and not cower behind a veil of secrecy, the issues could be addressed and all would be well. These NCOs don’t lack courage, however. They’re fearful of a system that too often dismisses reports of abuse and assault, while making life more difficult for those who made the allegations in the first place. Oh, you want me to prove it? I’d be happy to.

The Facts

The Houston Chronicle details the investigation of an Army inspector general which found 35% of women at Fort Hood claimed they were sexually harassed. According to the investigation, which took place following the disappearance and murder of Vanessa Guillen, 85 percent of the soldiers on base felt comfortable reporting sexual harassment and assault to officials, while more than 90 percent reported trust in leadership. I struggle to believe this is accurate due to a couple of key facts.  

First, a DOD report that states Fort Hood led the entire Army with the most sexual assaults from 2013 to 2016 was published on November 17, 2017 and contains the most recent data regarding sexual assault at military installations. Second, in 2019 service members filed 7,825 formal reports of sexual assault while a survey from the previous year found that 20,500 active duty service members experienced sexual assault according to a separate DOD report.

What does this mean? Unless sexual assaults magically decreased by over 50 percent across the DOD from 2018 to 2019, then far less than 50 percent of those who were assaulted actually reported it. The Army is the largest military branch, as far as personnel, by a wide margin. If Fort Hood had the highest number of sexual assaults in the Army from 2013 to 2016 based on the most current data, but 85 percent say they felt comfortable reporting it to officials, then why is there such a large discrepancy between the DOD’s numbers when it comes to those who report vs. those who are actually assaulted only a few years later? The other branches would have to DRASTICALLY be compensating and committing assault at unheard of volumes to cover that gap.

When members of Congress toured Fort Hood recently, they discovered there was a “toxic culture of fear, intimidation, harassment and indifference.”

Over the last 5 years, there have been over 150 suicides, murders and disappearances at Fort Hood, a staggeringly high number.

One particular incident was the disappearance and death of SGT Elder Fernandes. SGT Fernandes reported that he was sexually assaulted in May of 2020, but Army CID found his report to be unsubstantiated. It was determined after his death that the report was unsubstantiated based on the accused individual passing a polygraph test alone. After Fernandes reported in May that he had been inappropriately touched by a male superior, he was transferred, and word spread within the new unit, leading to harassment, belittling, bullying and hazing. SGT Fernandes was later found hanging from a tree 28 miles away from base after he had been missing for a week.

PFC Gregory Wedel Morales disappeared in August of 2019. His command reported him AWOL without an investigation, just for him to turn up dead in a shallow grave outside of Fort Hood. The majority of soldiers in the Army today have been recalled to base when a sensitive piece of equipment goes missing, but the same is not done for a missing soldier. Many will say that statement is a false correlation, that one doesn’t equal the other, and you can’t just shut things down every time someone takes off because they usually ARE AWOL. I’d contend with that statement by saying most missing equipment is the result of poor inventories done by junior officers, but that doesn’t stop us from locking things down every time it happens.

The story surrounding Reeanna Place speaks to the fear many have when reporting incidents higher. Though she was forced to report her assault, the immediate leadership who made her come forward turned in to a greater nightmare than she could have ever imagined. Her entire life came to a crashing halt and was forever altered. Though her case is extreme, it’s another example in a long line of those who regret ever having spoken up in the first place.

We could talk about the NCO blamed for the accident that killed nine soldiers at Fort Hood in 2016. The blame was placed on a single SSG, but the Army Times wrote,

“though Colon-Vasquez was ultimately blamed for the accident, the investigation into the soldiers’ deaths found a list of shortfalls at Fort Hood, III Corps and down to the unit level.”

Shortfalls at the 3 star level resulted in a SSG taking the full blame? The family of the SSG is still fighting back against this investigation.

I recently wrote an article about mold in the barracks on Fort Hood. This isn’t an isolated issue. This exists across the DOD. Soldiers have reported on black mold in their ventilation and barracks to their chains of command for decades. I know, because I did it myself on Fort Bragg in 2004. Soldiers are routinely told the mold is a result of their lack of cleanliness and they simply need to clean more, but this simply isn’t true. It demonstrates where the leadership’s priorities lie, however. Even if immediate leadership is sympathetic, if you go up high enough to those who control the coin purse, you’ll be shut down. Only recently did the Army allocate $10 billion to fixing the barracks. It took Rep. Gil Cisneros walking through the barracks at Hood and saying, “I think I have seen the worst barracks I’ve ever seen in my life” to finally spur that change.

I could write on these incidents and fill page after page with reports involving soldiers who were abused or were neglected by leadership on Fort Hood. At some point, we have to get back on topic, and that’s the idea of these anonymous NCOs not practicing “personal courage” because they spoke in the shadows. They absolutely have courage.

First, I think the term itself is a ridiculous Army buzzword that disconnected leaders throw out there without thought. What other kind of courage is there? It’s all personal. You either have courage or you don’t. Is courage sticking your head out of your foxhole just to get it blown off under a withering barrage of fire power directed at your position? Or is courage understanding what needs to be done and using any tactical advantage you have to make it happen while staying alive in the process to conduct the next mission?

I’m an officer. I know exactly what approaching the boss entails. You don’t walk into his office with “things you heard” and conjecture. You better have facts, details and a plan. Anyone who’s been stationed on Fort Hood knows about the crime that festers within its walls, pouring out onto the streets of Killeen. Few have been cataloging the incidents and have every detail about every event and the outcome of those events, but word travels, and people know things are off. An installation doesn’t have articles written about why it’s “the Army’s most crime-ridden post” just as a way to gain readers.

If I were to address LTG White face to face with no fear of repercussions, I’d say, “you got off easy, sir. MG Efflandt wasn’t the CG, and we all know it. It’s a lot easier to fire a MG than it is to fire a deployed, 3 star, Task Force Commander. Your buddies hooked you up. This is your installation, therefore the responsibility falls on you. Instead of telling junior NCOs to practice personal courage and talk to you face to face, how about you practice personal courage and clean up your installation. People are dying, and it’s not from war. They raised their right hand in service to this nation, and they deserve better. Address the problem, not those who say there is one.”

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