Fort Hood launches effort to address sexual assault, suicide

National

U.S. Army Deputy Chiefs of Staff Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, left, and Col. William Zielinski, discuss the People First Center, a new training and resource facility at Fort Hood, Texas on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (Acacia Coronado/Report for America via AP)

FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) — U.S. Army officials unveiled a new resource and training center at Fort Hood on Thursday that aims to create a more supportive culture following reports of murder, suicide and sexual assault at the embattled Texas military installation.

The People First Center will provide resources and support for soldiers who are victims of sexual assault or have had suicidal thoughts, and will aim to prevent such problems by training Fort Hood leaders on how to properly respond, Army officials said during a tour of the facility. The center will become fully operational in 2022.

Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, who attended the tour, said he hoped the changes implemented at Fort Hood and elsewhere would provide “a very cordial, comfortable environment, responsive to any soldiers and victims, in a coordinated location, with experts that can also assist in other areas as well.”

The center is expected to provide training and resources on how to prevent sexual harassment and assault, as well as how to respond to allegations. Training and support services will also be available on equal opportunities, suicide prevention, substance abuse and spirituality.

An independent review of Fort Hood — prompted by the deaths of more than two dozen soldiers at the base in 2020 — revealed that military leaders were not adequately dealing with high rates of sexual assault and harassment, drug use and other problems. It also concluded that the Army Criminal Investigation Division was understaffed, overwhelmed and filled with inexperienced investigators, and that female soldiers feared retaliation and compromised confidentiality if they filed complaints.

In April, U.S. Army officials disciplined 21 officers and non-commissioned officers, including firing eight senior commanders, related to the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was killed at Fort Hood in April 2020. According to Guillen’s family, she had been harassed in the months before her death.

Fort Hood officials said Thursday that some additional recommendations have been put in place for the base while others still needed to be implemented, but did not provide details of programs to address soldiers’ concerns about how reports of sexual assault and harassment are handled at the Texas base.

Brito said the People First Task Force was working to change these systems across the Army informed by data collected from pilot programs at other bases to address sexual assault and harassment reporting. He is one of the chairs of the panel.

“I know some goodness will come out of it over time, by doing this right, the intellectual energies behind it and more importantly the passion of leadership behind it,” Brito said. The task force has helped to implement dozens of recommendations from the independent review.

The People First Task Force has also established pilot programs at six other Army facilities that aim to improve services for soldiers who report sexual harassment or assault.

Col. Kelly Webster, deputy director of the People First Task Force, told reporters Wednesday that the program would allow soldiers to report assaults outside their chain of command, while providing resources such as victim advocates, chaplains, heath care workers and more.

Being allowed to go outside the chain of command has been a common request; Soldiers have said their reports are sometimes ignored or belittled by unit commanders, who often know the victim and alleged assailant. Kelly said the program would also reduce the possibility of a commander retaliating against a soldier who reports an assault.

Col. Erica Cameron, who is leading the effort to revamp the sexual assault response program, said even though Fort Hood was a catalyst for the latest studies and changes, it was not included in the initiative because there were already changes afoot at that base.

The six locations are: Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Irwin, California; Fort Riley, Kansas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The Army Reserve will set up a virtual center for the 99th Readiness Division which is based at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

The pilot program is expected to launch early next year.

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Baldor reported from Washington. Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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