Army Secretary on Vanessa Guillen: 'We let her down'

FORT HOOD, Texas (KTRK) -- The murder of Fort Hood soldier and Houston native Vanessa Guillen was at the center of Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy's visit Thursday, with him noting her death has "served as a tipping point where survivors spoke out on social media and shared their own trauma."

McCarthy spoke at Fort Hood to talk about how the Army has handled recent events involving soldiers at the post, including Guillen, who allegedly told family members she was sexually harassed, but didn't report it out of fear of retaliation. The attorney for Guillen's family, Natalie Khawam, said she discovered at least two alleged incidents of sexual harassment -- a superior walking in on Guillen showering and another verbally assaulting her with vulgar remarks in Spanish. Khawam said she was worried about how the case might turn out.

"The murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen has become a catalyst, highlighting sexual harassment and sexual assault within the military," McCarthy said. "The loss of Vanessa has been felt in our formations, particularly here, and across the nation."

But on July 2, Fort Hood officials refuted those allegations, with Special Agent Damon Phelps, who is with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, saying, "There is no credible information that Specialist Robinson sexually harassed Specialist Guillen."

The day before, U.S. Army officials found remains, which were later identified as 20-year-old Guillen, who had been missing since April 22, near the Leon River in Bell County, about 20 miles east of Fort Hood.

Guillen, was dismembered by U.S. Army Specialist Aaron Robinson, a 20-year-old soldier from Calumet City, Illinois. He took his own life before he could be taken into custody, federal and military investigators have said.

Cecily Aguilar, a 22-year-old civilian from Killeen, was arrested and charged with one count of conspiring to tamper with evidence for allegedly helping hide Guillen's body.

McCarthy has since agreed to appoint a panel to investigate how Guillen's case has been handled.

"I am directing an independent & comprehensive review of the command climate and culture," McCarthy wrote in a tweet in late July. "We have to listen in order to create enduring change."

On Thursday, reporters asked McCarthy about that review, which is not complete, he said, vowing that the media and Congress will be updated.

Along with an implementation team after those results are released, McCarthy said the Army is rolling out "Project Inclusion to address behaviors that tear at the fabric of our force.... issues such as a lack of diversity, discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault and suicides."

McCarthy said a series of investigations are underway into Guillen's murder as well as into the unit to find out if a toxic, sexual harassment environment exists.

But the Army Secretary was also pressed on the multiple, recent instances of Fort Hood soldiers' deaths.

Earlier this week, Fort Hood announced another soldier, 24-year-old Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas, had died in a boating accident. His case is the fifth death in a matter of months where a soldier was either murdered or found dead.

McCarthy said he'd met with soldiers of all ranks over the last 24 hours, explaining that an independent group of investigators would be heading to Fort Hood to understand why these deaths have occurred on or near the post.

"The numbers are high here. They are the highest. This is the most cases for sexual assault, harassment, murders, for our entire formation in the U.S. Army," McCarthy said. "So, we are getting an outside look to help us to get to those root causes and understand that so that we can make those changes with the point of emphasis being that we're going to put every resource, and all of the energy we can in this entire institution behind fixing these problems."

McCarthy added he was "markedly disappointed and saddened in one of our own killing a teammate" and that her death has "hit us hard."

Guillen's family has since worked with lawmakers to introduce the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill, which would let service members file sexual assault and harassment claims to a third party, rather than their chain of command.

Texas Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia said the legislation would also help ensure the military provides monetary damages in the case of negligence by the military. She did note, however, that the Guillen family has not requested damages at this time.

READ MORE: Rep. Garcia working with Guillen family to improve communication between Army and families

Guillen's family has said they haven't heard from McCarthy, though he said he has sent written condolences. Her family plans to rally at Fort Hood Friday at 4 p.m.

Though McCarthy said he would look at his schedule, it was unclear if he would be able to attend.

"We let her down. We let her family down, and it hurts," McCarthy said.

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