Sparked by Fort Hood soldier's slaying, Army working to better support sex abuse victims

By Heather Osbourne

AUSTIN, Texas — Sparked by the slaying of Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood last year, the U.S. Army has announced a one-year pilot program at seven military installations across the nation to provide more resources and support for victims of sexual crimes among soldiers.

As part of the planned redesign of its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP), the Army plans to create a "fusion directorate" at each post that will have victim advocates, medical teams, investigators and legal teams all in one building.

Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Riley in Kansas, Fort Irwin in California, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland will be in the pilot program. The Army Reserve will pilot a virtual fusion directorate for the 99th Readiness Division in New Jersey.

Army Col. Erica Cameron, leader of the Operation People First and SHARP Redesign Task Force, said Fort Hood will not be part of the pilot program because so much change is already taking place on the Central Texas post.

The SHARP program came under much scrutiny last year after Guillen's family revealed the 20-year-old told them that she was being sexually harassed by at least one person at Fort Hood months before her death.

In the wake of the Guillen case, investigators were called in last year to take a close look at how Fort Hood leaders run the installation. They found that the SHARP program was to blame for the mishandling in some sexual misconduct cases.

Investigators with the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee said early this year that the post's SHARP leaders told them during their interviews in summer of 2020 that three out of four female soldiers between the ages of 18 to 23 are sexually assaulted or harassed within 8 months of being stationed at Fort Hood.

Investigators said it appeared the SHARP program not only failed to protect soldiers the summer when the investigation first began, but also neglected their duties dating back as far as 2013. Investigators while testifying before Congress in March said SHARP was one of several failed systems, which included the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID).

SHARP and CID were found to be run on a skeleton crew at Fort Hood, with the majority of those in the positions inexperienced to handle the complexity of the investigations and cases, the investigators said.

Now in the redesign phase of the SHARP, Cameron said the pilot program will better utilize the buildings already set aside for the program when it was not running efficiently.

The pilot program will be very similar to policies already set in place under SHARP, but will just add in more staff to the building so soldiers can receive help from multiple agencies at once, giving greater opportunity to talk to advocates outside their chain of command.

"It didn't exactly look like the fusion directorate that we're envisioning for this pilot," Cameron said, comparing it to other SHARP buildings set up in the past. "In many of these cases, they did not have on-site direct support elements from CID, legal, etc.

"They are now expanding to make sure there is at least a functioning space for those organizations to come and support victims," she continued. "That is one of our requirements of this pilot program."

At each of the seven pilot sites, there will be a director of the fusion directorate who will report to the senior installation commander, according to Army leaders Wednesday.

"It is intended to increase accountability, transparency and efficiency by coordinating all victim response elements," Cameron said Wednesday. "Co-locating these support services, either physically or virtually, will be easier for victims to get the help they need and empower them to navigate what can be an emotional and complex process."

Spc. Vanessa Guillen of Houston was last seen on April 22, 2020, at Fort Hood, where the 20-year-old was being sexually harassed, her family said. One of the people the Guillen family accused of harassing her was fellow Spc. Aaron Robinson.

Months after accusing Robinson of the harassment, authorities narrowed in on the soldier as a suspect in Guillen's disappearance. Authorities now believe Robinson beat Guillen to death with a hammer in an armory room on post the morning of April 22, 2020.

Robinson fatally shot himself July 1, 2020, as authorities sought to question him after finding Guillen's remains at a nearby river the day before, according to Killeen police. Army officials were never able to confirm the family's claims that Robinson harassed Guillen.

In late April, one year after Guillen's disappearance, Army leaders did confirm that Guillen was sexually harassed and subjected to retaliation at Fort Hood, as her family in Houston has consistently alleged in their fight for criminal justice reform in the military. However, Army leaders say it was a non-commissioned officer, whom they declined to identify, who sexually harassed Guillen.

The public rallied behind the Guillen family after the soldier's disappearance last year, triggering a viral social media hashtag, #IAmVanessaGuillen, that hundreds of service members used to share their own experiences with sexual misconduct in the military.

Many of their stories were similar, often saying the military did little or nothing to investigate the incidents or prosecute the offenders. In many of the social media posts, soldiers said they never reported their experiences out of fear of retaliation.

The #IAmVanessaGuillen movement eventually morphed into the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, a bill that, if included in the National Defense Authorization Act — annual legislation that lays out the nation's defense policies — would allow investigators outside a soldier's direct chain of command to investigate instances of sexual abuse in the military.

Lawmakers in support of the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act say current Army protocols are flawed and problematic because the investigators are often those in a victim's direct chain of command and frequently have personal relationships with those accused of a crime and the victim who is reporting it. As a result, victims fear retaliation if those investigators fail to properly investigate without bias.

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