Shut It Down: Calls Grow to Close Fort Hood After Probe into Murders & Sexual Assaults at Army Base

StoryDecember 14, 2020
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The U.S. Army has fired or suspended 14 officers and soldiers stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, following an investigation into sexual assaults and murders at the base, including the bludgeoning to death of 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillén, whose remains were found in July. “These are institutional failures at scale. And by the Army’s own admission, and in this report, it’s clear that this is not unique to Fort Hood,” says Pam Campos-Palma, an Air Force veteran who leads the Vets for the People project at the Working Families Party. “The military is dealing with large-scale corruption and crime, and it should be treated as such.” Meanwhile, veterans groups are demanding the firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie after an inspector general report found he tried to smear a woman who filed a complaint of sexual assault at a VA hospital.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The U.S. Army has fired or suspended 14 officers, including a general, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, after an investigation into sexual assaults and murders at the Army’s largest base found they’re, quote, “directly related to leadership failures.” Congress launched the probe in part due to pressure from the family of 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillén, who was sexually harassed at the base before she was bludgeoned to death. Vanessa went missing in April. Her remains were only found in July, when her family traveled to Washington to talk to Congress. Her sister, Mayra Guillén, responded to news of the firings last week.

MAYRA GUILLÉN: We’re going to keep pushing. We’re going to keep asking for the legislation to be passed in order to be able to help all these military members that need our help. We don’t need this to happen again. And we’re, I guess you could say, satisfied with what — the investigation they released today. There was individuals that we asked for them to be removed, and they have been removed. Now it’s for us to keep on asking for justice, to find those who are responsible, and keep the investigation going to see who has to be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: A panel of five independent investigators spent several weeks at Fort Hood and found a widespread pattern of violence, including murder, sexual assault and harassment. They also collected more than 31,000 responses to a survey on sexual assault and harassment and found many women were afraid to report abuse because previous cases went unpunished. This is panel member Carrie Ricci speaking to reporters last Tuesday.

CARRIE RICCI: I just want to add that one of the things that the soldiers at Fort Hood, many of them, needed was to be believed. And that was what we did. We listened. And so, if any of them see this, I want them to know: We believe you. And that was a really — that’s a really important takeaway, was to believe.

AMY GOODMAN: A proposed bill before Congress called the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would transform military sexual misconduct inquiries. This comes as veterans’ groups are joining calls to fire the Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, after an inspector general’s report found he tried to smear a woman who filed a complaint of sexual assault at a VA hospital.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Pam Campos-Palma, the senior political strategist and head of the Vets for the People project at Working Families Party, an Air Force veteran herself.

Pam, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what happened last week. Who are these 14 people who have been fired or suspended?

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Thanks for having me back.

We don’t really know. I mean, Fort Hood, it’s — last week was an explosive moment where, really, what was exposed in that report is what many advocates, veterans, countless military members have been saying for years, frankly. Fort Hood has been known as a less-than-desirable duty station because of these major problems of violent crime. And it’s clear that the base continues to be a clear danger to anyone that serves, works, lives on or off that post.

But really importantly, when they say 14 leaders were fired and suspended, they’ve only released a few names. And it’s really important that we continue to push for transparency, because this could be an opportunity to tell the world, “If you have more rank, you have more responsibility,” or this could be another par-for-the-course scapegoating of junior officers and enlisted. And importantly, what does “fired” even mean? Are they fired from Fort Hood? Are they fired from the Army? Does this mean a court-martial? Do they get to retire with military benefits at their rank? And so, while the report is a good first step, like the Guillén family has said, there is much more to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for people who aren’t familiar with the case of Vanessa Guillén — I mean, even how her body was found, what happened to her, complaints before she died — can you just take us through that, Pam?

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Sure, of course. I vividly remember when Vanessa Guillén was missing. So, really importantly is not to forget that the reason that any action was really taken, in my view, is because Gloria Guillén, her mother, a working-class Latina, who does not speak English, took the Army on when her daughter was missing. And in the report, it should be noted, there was a section on the fact that there really isn’t strong protocols around AWOL soldiers.

But Vanessa Guillén went missing. She had told her mother that she was being sexually harassed by a superior-ranking person. The Army negated that. They undermined the Guilléns in saying that there was proof that her daughter — their daughter, their sister, Vanessa Guillén, was in fact being sexually harassed, which is the crux of the report, which is why you hear Ms. Ricci saying people just want to be believed. Vanessa Guillén was not believed.

And then her body was found, you know, to most of the community’s deep grief. Her body was found off base, really importantly. Vanessa Guillén was murdered on Fort Hood. Her property, her keys, her cellphone were found on the base. And so, the biggest question for months has been: Where is the Army’s accountability, the Department of Defense accountability, for keeping our soldiers safe?

And Vanessa Guillén is only one of many. There actually have been 30 — around 30 soldiers who have been dead from noncombat injuries at Fort Hood, which is why there has been a nationwide movement of public pressure to make sure that there is accountability. And really importantly, what I think is often lost is it took women, women military members and veterans, early on, saying that they would boycott enlistment and demanded the shutdown of the base, particularly Latinas, who are the highest-growing population, enlistment population. And so, it has been months of pressure, of really asking: Where is Congress, where is Army leadership accounting for these systemic failures that have happened for decades?

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the I Am Vanessa Guillén bill in Congress, what exactly that calls for, who’s fighting against it?

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Yeah. I mean, the I Am Vanessa Guillén bill is a compilation of many different advocates’ pleas for years. So, one important thing is, this isn’t news. This isn’t news to Congress. It’s not news to the DOD. The I Am Vanessa Guillén bill, most importantly, is demanding that the military cannot investigate itself. The I Am Vanessa Guillén bill most assertively says you must take this out of the hands of the DOD. There must be an independent means for investigating these kinds of criminality, these kinds of crimes.

Additionally, the I Am Vanessa Guillén bill seeks to codify what is assault, what is harassment. The ugly truth is that rape culture is military culture. Military training for many years in this traditional insular institution has really hearkened on training that invokes racism and sexism. And that culture is not unique to Fort Hood. And so, the I Am Vanessa Guillén bill really seeks strong structural transformation and reforms that make this an operational imperative and a national security imperative.

AMY GOODMAN: Uh —

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: The people — oh, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: No, go ahead.

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: The people who are fighting about — a better question is: Who’s been silent? Who doesn’t want to take on this fight?

AMY GOODMAN: Who? Who do you think needs to?

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: I mean, for me, one of the most glaring parts of the report not to be glossed over is the report says the only community ties that Fort Hood had was with political and business leaders. So my question is: Where are the representatives that represent Fort Hood, that have represented Fort Hood not just in 2020, but since 2013? Representative Roger Williams came into office in 2013. Representative John Carter has represented that part of Fort Hood for over 20 years. You know, these are politicians that have served in office at a time where Fort Hood had skyrocketing suicides, sexual assaults, even human trafficking incidents, you know, and mass shootings. And so, really, the question is: Where are the people that we the people elected to serve us, who have turned a blind eye to criminality and corruption on one of the largest bases in the world that lands in their district?

Another person that I have my eyes on is General Mark Milley. Our current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was the base commander of Fort Hood in 2012 to 2014 — again, at a time where Fort Hood was at its all-time highs for sexual assault and an increase in suicides. So, there are several both military and political leaders who have failed up and who have really done a disservice, because Vanessa Guillén’s death and murder was preventable. She should be with us now. And it was this kind of criminal negligence that allowed her abuse and the abuse of other soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, her sister Mayra tweeted, after it was announced that these 14 people, including a general, would be suspended or fired, that that is not enough, that she wants people brought up on charges. And even when they were looking for Vanessa Guillén’s body, they found other remains of other soldiers.

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Absolutely. I mean, these are institutional failures at scale. And by the Army’s own admission, and in this report, it’s clear that this is not unique to Fort Hood. Military members on social media have even, after reading the report, said, “This sounds like something at — this reminds me of Fort Benning, Fort Bragg,” these other military bases under the Army’s purview, where there has been a vast proliferation of systemic sexual assault.

And these are crimes. Too often we talk about military sexual trauma as an occupational hazard. But the military is dealing with large-scale corruption and crime, and it should be treated as such. If you are a high-ranking general, you do not get to get off the hook and retire and go teach at the War College. This is an incredible opportunity for the Department of Defense and for congressional leaders to actually do right, not only by the Guillén family, but by the military and veteran community at large.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there are calls for Fort Hood to be closed. I want to ask you, as you were talking about: Do you support that today? I mean, what? Something like 30 people have died in the last year, servicemembers connected to Fort Hood, including by homicide, suicide, accident and illness. Also, should Fort Hood’s name be changed? You have Trump saying he wants Congress to strip out of the provision — of this massive military bill the provision that allows renaming of military bases, including Fort Benning and Fort Hood, after Confederate leaders. So, should it be closed? Should it be renamed?

PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Yeah. We are living in a moment. Take a look at the bigger picture. We’re living in a moment where there are institutions, whether that’s police, ICE or the military, who purport to stand on law and order, and claim accountability, courage and service, only when it suits them. This is a hypocrisy that is dangerous.

And so, renaming Fort Hood, which is named after one of the most reckless Confederate generals, who got a lot of his people killed — renaming Fort Hood to Harriet Tubman, let’s say, while women and soldiers continue to be raped and abused, is not progress, is not what we need. And so, I don’t believe that just renaming — you know, I actually think that campaigns, marketing campaigns, that say, “We’re taking care of our troops,” that lack real structural changes, are harmful.

And so, absolutely, this report only confirms that Fort Hood is a deep, egregious failure and danger. It is one of 800 bases. For me, it must be shut down. And “shut down” means halt all operations on that base at once. You cannot tell your troops and your soldiers, “We’re fixing the problem. We’re going to try to take care of you. But also we’re going to continue as business as normal.” And so, yes, real leadership and accountability means halting all operations, shut down Fort Hood. It is an irredeemable installation. And this is a moment for actual, concrete change, especially if you claim to support the troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam Campos-Palma, I thank you so much for being with us, senior political strategist, head of the Vets for People project at the Working Families Party. She is an Air Force veteran herself.

And that does it for our show. A very special thanks to Julie Crosby and Miriam Barnard. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager, Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Denis Moynihan, Paul Powell. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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