WASHINGTON – Lawmakers expressed frustration Tuesday with how slowly improvements are being made to criminal investigations at Fort Hood, Texas, where rates of violent crime and sexual assaults are particularly high.
They grilled the commander of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, who said she is “seizing this moment” to correct the staffing and resource problems within her agency that led to sweeping failures in tracking and solving cases.
“We can and we will do better," Maj. Gen. Donna Martin told the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel. She said the Army is working to restructure and modernize CID, and is considering adding more civilian investigators and creating special teams that could respond to major criminal cases when needed at any base.
More than two dozen Fort Hood soldiers died in 2020, including in multiple homicides and suicides. The death of Vanessa Guillen, whose remains were found in July, and other cases prompted an independent review, which found that military leaders were not adequately dealing with high rates of sexual assault, harassment, drug use and other problems at the base. The review also concluded that the Army CID was understaffed, overwhelmed and filled with inexperienced investigators.
Members of the independent review panel told lawmakers on Tuesday that the CID investigators lacked the acumen to identify key leads and “connect the dots.”
Christopher Swecker, chairman of the review panel, said the agents were “victims of the system,” which he said failed to train them and often had them doing administrative tasks. And he said the base leadership was focused on military readiness, and “completely and utterly neglected” the sexual assault prevention program. As a result, he said, lower-level unit commanders didn't encourage service members to report assaults, and in many cases were shaming victims or were actually the perpetrators themselves.
Lawmakers pressed Martin for specific changes she has made to staffing, case loads and tracking at Fort Hood, but she gave limited answers and said decisions are still being made, further frustrating the lawmakers.
“I'm truly disappointed that that is the extent of what you have gleaned from the report,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the subcommittee chairwoman, told Martin.
Under questioning from others, Martin said Army leaders are reviewing a number of options, including adding more civilian investigators, creating eight major case response teams and hiring 30 support personnel to do administrative and technology tasks. She said the Army also could put military police in charge of the administrative jobs to free up investigators for cases.
Martin also came under fire from Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., about the case of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, who was missing for more than a week last year before he was found dead about 28 miles from Fort Hood.
Fernandes, who was from Lynch’s congressional district, had complained of sexual harassment, but the case was determined to be unsubstantiated after the accused passed a polygraph test. Lynch complained that CID hasn't given Fernandes' parents the report on their son's death, despite repeated requests.
Martin said she would personally ensure that the family gets the report.
As a result of the independent review and other investigations, the Army earlier this year took action against 14 officers and enlisted soldiers at Fort Hood. The actions included the firing of three top commanders and suspension of two others, pending a further investigation. The Guillen family’s lawyer said CID agents were among the 14.