- Pam Campos-Palmapolitical strategist with the Working Families Party, where she leads the Vets for the People project. She is also an Air Force veteran.
The top commander at Fort Hood is removed from his post, and the U.S. Army has launched an investigation, after a series of murders and accusations of sexual abuse at the base, with 23 deaths at Fort Hood this year and 13 soldiers disappeared, killed or who died by suicide. In April, the remains of soldier Vanessa Guillén were found near the base, and the main suspect in that case killed himself in July shortly after he was accused of her murder. Her case sparked national outrage about sexual assault in the military and led to the introduction of legislation to make it easier for military personnel to report sexual assault and harassment. “Rape culture, systemic racism, corruption and impunity has been really part and parcel in the Department of Defense for decades,” says Air Force veteran Pam Campos-Palma, who leads the Vets for the People project, adding that Congress must provide proper oversight of the military.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Texas, where Fort Hood’s top commander has been removed from his post as public outcry grows over a series of killings and accusations of sexual abuse at the Army base. There have been 23 deaths at Fort Hood this year alone. Thirteen soldiers have been disappeared or killed or died by suicide. Last week, the remains of another Fort Hood soldier, Elder Fernandes, were found near the base hanging from a tree.
On Tuesday, the Army announced a new investigation into Fort Hood’s chain of command related to the April murder of soldier Vanessa Guillén, whose remains were found near the base at the end of June. In July, her family announced the remains had been found, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., where they demanded a congressional investigation into Vanessa’s case. This is Lupe Guillén, Vanessa Guillén’s younger sister, speaking that day in D.C.
LUPE GUILLÉN: My sister, Vanessa Guillén, was sexually harassed. … They didn’t keep my sister safe. They always try to cover up for each other. Why? My sister’s a human, too. She deserves respect. She deserves to be heard. Because if this can happen to my sister, it can happen to anyone else. … How can this happen on a military base? How can this happen while she was on duty? … They don’t care about us. My sister is an example of it. My sister did not deserve to suffer. My sister did not deserve this.
AMY GOODMAN: The main suspect in Vanessa Guillén’s death, another Fort Hood soldier, Specialist Aaron David Robinson, died by suicide, according to the police, as they approached him in July shortly after he was accused. A federal complaint alleges Robinson killed Guillén with a hammer on Fort Hood before removing her body in a box. He and his girlfriend then allegedly dismembered the remains. Robinson shot himself as police approached him. According to her family, Vanessa Guillén had been planning on reporting Robinson for sexual harassment.
Her case has sparked national outrage about sexual assault in the military. In July, her family met with President Trump and also announced legislation to create a third-party agency where active military personnel can report sexual assault and harassment outside their chain of command. The bill is named I Am Vanessa Guillen. Guillén was just 20 years old when she was killed.
For more on the latest developments at Fort Hood, we go to Charleston, South Carolina, where we’re joined by Pam Campos-Palma, political strategist with the Working Families Party, where she leads the Vets for the People project. She is an Air Force veteran.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Pam. It’s great to have you with us. You’re deeply involved with this case. Can you talk about the latest developments this week, the commander of Fort Hood being forced to step down, and how it ties into the Vanessa Guillén case, all that you know about her case so far?
PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Sure. It’s been a devastating time. I mean, many of us, survivors, veterans, supporters of the Guillén family and all those that have been lost at Fort Hood, have been organizing for months, since her disappearance to her murder. And the recent developments from the Army in terms of leadership change at Fort Hood is a hopeful sign of the hard work of activists, who have really demanded true accountability and no more piecemeal reforms. However, it’s not enough.
We’ve been very clear that the Army can no longer continue to investigate itself. Even with this acting commander, Scott Efflandt, he’s still staying on the base. It’s not clear if he will actually pay with his career for the gross criminal negligence under his watch. And he’s also not the only commander, right? This is not unique to Vanessa Guillén. This is not unique to Fort Hood. Rampant sexual military — military sexual violence, corruption, impunity has been a decades-long issue that can no longer be ignored.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Pam, you say that what’s happened at Fort Hood is not exceptional. Nevertheless, the sheer rate of violent crime on the base is extraordinary — as we mentioned, the number of people who have died by suicide, who have been killed or simply disappeared. Can you say something about the way in which this military base, in particular, is run, its chain of command, its leadership, and why you think there have been so many incidents this year alone?
PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Right. It is exceptional, what is happening at Fort Hood. However, criminality, violent crime at Fort Hood has been happening for years. For the last 11 years, in fact, Fort Hood has had among the highest rates of sexual assault, suicide, a mass shooting, and now multiple human trafficking rings which involved active-duty Fort Hood soldiers.
What’s really interesting about Fort Hood, as well, is that it is also one of the largest military installations in the world and also produces some of the highest-ranking, most notable names in the military. Right? Our current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, himself, before being the highest-ranking officer currently in the armed forces, was a commander at Fort Hood. And others who are now pundits and known household military general names also commanded at Fort Hood.
And so, my point is that rape culture, systemic racism, corruption and impunity has been really part and parcel in the Department of Defense for decades. And part of this problem has been not just the — there’s a couple of pieces to this problem. One is, if rape and racism are not really deemed the problem but part of the culture, it’s impossible to report. And the current reporting systems in place and mechanisms are dissuasive, by the Army’s own account. In these cases in these past few months, it’s been even more exposed how retaliation within the ranks for reporting is a problem.
Secondarily, where is the accountability? Consistently, Congress has not necessarily stepped up to their responsibility of true oversight of the military. Congress is really the only ones that can hold the Department of Defense accountable. And time and time again, they have relied on the military to investigate themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember the news conference so well in Washington, the family driving from Texas to Washington, D.C. And the news conference was delayed in the hot sun, because the family was just getting word that the military said they had found the remains of Vanessa Guillén. Now, they had been calling for this investigation for months. Clearly, the pressure being brought as the family actually made it to D.C. and were demanding that a bill be passed, in Vanessa Guillén’s name, calling for an independent — calling for an independent way for people to come forward. Can you explain the significance of this bill, Pam?
PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Sure. I mean, it is imperative. I mean, decades of commanders — the choice has been really clear in the military: protect the careers of longtime generals and high-ranking officers, or protect everyday soldiers. And time and time again, they’ve chosen to protect commanders. And commanders have not actually expunged sexual violence from the ranks. In fact, it has risen. And so, it is extremely important for there to be an independent way for folks in the military to report instances of harassment, of assault, of hate crimes. However, it is not the only thing.
One of the most important things that is not to be lost is, for too long, rape, violence in the military has been treated as an occupational hazard. And so, while the bill, which is not yet drafted — the I Am Vanessa Guillen bill is not yet drafted. There are other more comprehensive bills going through the Hill. It does take one part of the problem, which is, an independent third party is a positive step. However, there needs to be a complete overhaul of military culture, where sexual assault is not a training tool, where it is not permissible, and where there’s actual accountability. The fact that little to no officers are ever really held with account and do not pay with their careers, are allowed to continue to retire, shows you that this is permissible within the ranks.
AMY GOODMAN: Gloria Guillén, Vanessa’s mother, met with President Trump at the White House in July. She spoke to Trump via a Spanish-English interpreter. However, 10 minutes into the conversation, the translator stopped interpreting, after Vanessa’s mother Gloria made a request of Trump. This was first reported in the podcast In the Thick with Maria Hinojosa. Let’s go ahead with the translation that we did.
GLORIA GUILLÉN: [translated] My daughter’s story is now history. My daughter’s story is the story of the whole nation, of the whole world. I’ve dreamed of my daughter many times, and she tells me to save the children, to save the children. I don’t know which children she speaks of, but I want you to help me. I don’t know if it’s the children on the border, but if she tells me to save the children, I want you to help me with the children. She is history now, and you can be part of that history, if you help by doing something good for this nation.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Gloria Guillén, Vanessa’s mother, saying to President Trump, dreaming of her daughter telling her to be concerned about the children. She wasn’t sure if they were children on the border. The significance of this? And as we end, Pam, what the latest with — found with Elder Fernandes’s remains and the charges that he, too, was being sexually harassed? They say he took his own life.
PAM CAMPOS-PALMA: Yeah. I can’t repeat it enough. Gloria Guillén has been one of the most clear. And one of the biggest failings in this whole process is she doesn’t speak English, right? But she has been very clear in her pursuit. And one of the things that has made these cases different and has shed a greater light has been a working-class immigrant woman, immigrant families, who are not playing into the blind adulation of military generals and just blindly trusting them, and saying, “We demand accountability.” Gloria Guillén was brave to not only tell the president, to tell Congress, to tell military top brass, “Shut down Fort Hood. It is not a good for anyone.” And I think in this moment we are in an inflection point in this nation where everyday Americans are questioning the institutions that continue to fail us.
She has also said if there is no justice for these dead soldiers, then we will not in good conscience continue to promote enlistment of our young people, particularly when Black and Brown people are among the highest rates of enlistment. And so, whether it’s Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the systemic failures by police, who also like to investigate themselves, to the military’s continued failings, treating everyday soldiers like government property, throwing us into endless wars with no real questions or strategy, this is now the time to divest from violence and invest in real solutions that treat us in our full humanity.
And so I was not surprised to see an immigrant, Gloria Guillén, making these demands, in a time where our country is really grappling with what safety, safety for who, defense for who, who is protected. And we will continue to organize for Vanessa Guillén, Elder Fernandes, and for true accountability from the Department of Defense and Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Pam Campos-Palma, political strategist with the Working Families Party, she herself an Air Force military intelligence vet, head of the Vets for the People project.
Next, we go to Belarus, where mass protests continue to demand the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko amidst a brutal government crackdown. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “We Demand Equality” by Yariel Roaro, in honor of Vanessa Guillén.