SecArmy Pledges 'Every Resource' to Root Out Causes of Vanessa Guillen's Death

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Vanessa Guillen's mural in Houston
Dawn Gomez holds her 3-year-old granddaughter, Saryia Greer, who waves at Vanessa Guillen's mural painted by Alejandro "Donkeeboy" Roman Jr. on the side of Taqueria Del Sol, Thursday, July 2, 2020, in Houston. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told an audience at Fort Hood on Thursday that he is determined to change the culture of sexual harassment and assault at the Texas post and across the entire service.

McCarthy spent two days at Hood in the midst of public outcry over the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was murdered by a fellow soldier. He met with privates to general officers to assure them that he is sending a team of independent investigators to the post to "understand the root causes associated with the rise of felonies, violent acts" that have been associated with the deaths of several soldiers assigned to Hood.

"The numbers are high here; they are the highest in most cases of sexual assault and harassment ... for our entire formation in the U.S. Army," he told reporters at the press conference. "We are going to put every resource and all of the energy we can of this entire institution behind fixing these problems."

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President Donald Trump has offered his support in the effort, McCarthy said, describing a brief he received on the 15-minute conversation the commander in chief recently had with the Guillen family.

"He had offered his condolences; he vowed to put every resource at his disposal to address these types of challenges, and I think he even offered to pay for the funeral himself," McCarthy said.

In June, McCarthy said that he had directed the Army to select a team of civilian consultants to lead an independent review of the command climate at Fort Hood, amid mounting pressure from lawmakers and Hispanic advocacy groups calling for answers about Guillen's murder.

Guillen, a 20-year-old 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier, disappeared April 22 from the post. Army officials announced in early June that her remains had been identified after being discovered in Bell County.

An investigation revealed that Spc. Aaron Robinson allegedly murdered Guillen on the day she disappeared, according to a July 2 criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas.

Robinson allegedly told 22-year-old Cecily Aguilar that he killed Guillen "by striking her in the head with a hammer" while on post and then smuggled her body to a remote site in Bell County, the complaint states.

Aguilar, a civilian and the estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier, allegedly helped Robinson mutilate and dispose of Guillen's body, according to the complaint. Federal authorities charged Aguilar with conspiracy to tamper with evidence in Guillen's disappearance, it added.

Police attempted to apprehend Robinson on June 30, but he produced a firearm and took his own life, Army investigators have said.

Natalie Khawam, an attorney representing Guillen's family, has alleged that Robinson sexually harassed Guillen before murdering her.

McCarthy said it is clear that Guillen's death has "become a catalyst highlighting sexual harassment and sexual assault within the military."

"The loss of Vanessa has been felt in our formations, particularly here and across the nation," he said. "We are going to do everything we can to prevent these types of things from happening again."

Fort Hood and Army Criminal Investigation Command officials said July 2 that there is no credible evidence that Guillen was the victim of sexual harassment.

The Army, however, is conducting a 15-6 investigation into reports that Guillen was sexually harassed, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, deputy commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, told reporters at the press conference.

McCarthy said he was saddened by "one of our own killing a teammate."

"It rattles the systems of the trust that you have to have in this profession," he said.

"It has hit us hard, and the only thing we can do is come together and have very hard conversations and invest in each other and learn about each other so that we know who our teammates are," McCarthy added. "We are the Army; we are a reflection of the country and, at times, some people infiltrate our ranks. We've got to find them; we've got to root them out."

In addition to Guillen's murder, several soldiers have been found dead near Hood, a problem McCarthy said may lead to the Army changing the way it reacts when soldiers turn up missing.

"This has been a topic of debate at the highest levels of the Army for the last several weeks," he said. "Our reporting policies associated with a soldier -- are they [absent without leave] ... what are they, when do you make these determinations? And I believe we do have to take a very hard look at that."

McCarthy was asked whether he is open to removing leaders at Fort Hood if the independent review recommends such an action.

"If the conclusions are such that point to leaders or individuals in particular ... we would take the appropriate accountability," he replied.

Advocacy groups have called on the Army to close Fort Hood in response to Guillen's murder.

McCarthy stressed that the leaders at Hood that he has met with are "incredibly disappointed" by Guillen's death.

But there are also many "amazing contributions by men and women at this installation" that have to endure, he added.

"We rely on these units to protect our way of life," McCarthy said. "We must honor [Vanessa's] memory by creating enduring change as ... one assault is one too many."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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