WASHINGTON – Army Sec. Ryan McCarthy ordered an independent review of the command climate at Ft. Hood after the brutal murder of a soldier there raised questions about the treatment of women and Hispanic service members.
His announcement comes amid criticism over the Army’s handling of the disappearance of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was last seen alive in April. The Army on Friday said that within five days of her disappearance, investigators had focused on Spc. Aaron Robinson as the primary suspect.
But developing enough evidence to lock him up took months, senior Army criminal investigators said Friday, as they detailed how Robinson fled his barracks last month as officials closed in.
If the review finds wrongdoing, action will be taken against officials at “any echelon,” McCarthy said.
“We have to ensure that Hispanic service members are able to serve without hurdles of discrimination, McCarthy told a small group of reporters. “That they have the opportunity to progress through the ranks at every level and are able to do so without the fear from criminal acts such as sexual assault and harassment. Our soldiers and their families deserve to live and work in a safe and healthy environment.”
He directed Army Undersecretary James McPherson to assemble an independent panel to conduct the review. Thereview grew from concerns about Guillen’s disappearance and murder raised by her family, Congress and advocacy groups, McPherson said.
“The purpose of this independent review is to determine whether the command climate and culture at Ft. Hood and the military community surrounding Ft. Hood reflects Army values, including respect, inclusiveness, and workplaces free from sexual harassment, and a commitment to diversity,” McPherson said.
Guillen’s death has put under a spotlight the Army’s handling of her disappearance amid concerns that she had also been sexually harassed at the base.
“Slow to react to her disappearance and slow to arrest Robinson,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military. “It’s really unbelievable from a public safety point that they let a suspected murderer have access to a weapon.”
Robinson was able to obtain a weapon and kill himself before police could arrest him on June 30 for the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen. Her mutilated remains were found several weeks after her murder near Ft. Hood where she and Robinson had been stationed. She had last been seen alive on April 22.
Robinson fled his barracks on June 30 before investigators were able to meet legal requirements for his detention, said an Army official familiar with the investigation but not authorized to speak publicly. The case against Robinson was complicated by the need to conduct more than 300 interviews and forensic exams of 50 cellphones.
Within five days of Guillen’s disappearance, investigators began to focus on Robinson’s alibi as he was one of the last people known to have seen her. However, there was no evidence that they had developed a social or personal relationship. Nor was there indication that they had any conflict with each other, the Army official said.
There is also no evidence that Guillen filed a formal complaint but may have been harassed in an unrelated matter that is under investigation, the official said.
It’s not clear how Robinson, who worked in an armory at Ft. Hood, had access to the weapon he used to kill himself, according to the Army. But the firearm was not a military weapon.