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Local congressman addresses embattled army base

Fort Hood remains in the spotlight following several deaths in the army base that received national attention.

During a virtual press conference held Friday, Aug. 28, Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-28) discussed preliminary findings of an independent review on the climate and culture of Fort Hood where eight soldiers stationed there have been either killed or found dead since last March.

“We’re supportive of the military but when our young men and women are part of the military, the highest military commanders should do everything to protect our men and women,” Cuellar said. “Young men and women who are soldiers are putting themselves in harm’s way at the battlefield but we’re losing them at home.”

Fort Hood, which has 36,500 soldiers stationed there, has been under fire in the last several months following the disappearance of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a soldier who prosecutors say was murdered in an armory and then dismembered by a fellow soldier who committed suicide after becoming a suspect.

The incidents at Fort Hood grew over the summer as the body of Sgt. Elder Fernandes was found last week about a week after he was reported missing. Like Guillen, Fernandes reported he had been a victim of sexual assault and harassment at the base before his death.

The April disappearance of Guillen sparked nationwide calls for reform in the military in how it handles sexual assault investigations. Following these conversations, the Army announced Tuesday it was launching a new investigation into the handling of Guillen’s disappearance and that Fort Hood commander Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt will be removed from his position.

The investigation being conducted by the military is separate from the one Cuellar discussed at his press conference last week. According to Cuellar, Fort Hood is the military base with the highest cases of sexual assault, harassment and murders committed by soldiers per year.

“129 violent felonies are committed by soldiers there every year, no other base has those numbers,” Cuellar said. “Sexual violence disproportionately impacts women of color who are less likely to report their sexual harassment out of fear and retaliation. This is highly concerning as Hispanics make up 16 percent of the active duty military members, the fastest growing population in the military.”

Violent felonies include crimes such as homicide, kidnappings, robbery and sex crimes, Cuellar said. In the last five years, 165 soldiers from Fort Hood have died. Seven of those deaths have been ruled as homicide and 70 others died from suicide.

The report is expected to be completed this fall by the Army who will brief Congress of its findings, Cuellar said. 

Prior to the meeting, Cuellar and members of the League of United Latin American Citizens met with Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy to discuss the report.

“They told us the army is very concerned with the situation and these preliminary findings,” Cuellar said. “All ranks will be included in this review from the highest folks there to the lowest ranked officers. The Army leadership stressed they have zero tolerance for sexual assault and harassment and a full commitment into fixing this problem and regaining the public’s trust. There will be lessons learned that must be used to minimize future situations.”

On the legislative side, Cuellar said the Defense Appropriations Bill for the 2021 Fiscal Year includes millions for sexual assault prevention and response programs.

“I helped secure $282 million, an increase of $5 million from last year and added language in the appropriations bill to include language that commissions a study on the department of defense’s sexual assault and harassment reporting policies,” Cuellar said. “I requested a more comprehensive investigation. These are serious situations.” 

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