In a historic move Tuesday, the Army said it fired or suspended 14 officers and enlisted soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, and ordered policy changes to address chronic failures of leadership that contributed to a widespread pattern of violence, including murder, sexual assault, and harassment. A separate probe was also ordered into the base’s Criminal Investigation Command unit that is responsible for investigating crimes at Fort Hood.
Fort Hood is the most deadly and violent military base in the nation. Over the last year, at least 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood died by suicide or the result of accidents or homicide. This includes the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who experienced sexual harassment on base before she disappeared from Fort Hood on April 22. The specialist’s remains were found June 30 near the Leon River in eastern Bell County, about 20 miles from Fort Hood. According to a federal complaint, Guillén is believed to have been murdered by fellow soldier Aaron Robinson, who reportedly killed Guillén with a hammer and hid her body in a large box in Fort Hood’s armory before dismembering and burning Guillén’s remains. Army leaders and members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee—which released a damning review of Fort Hood—acknowledged that the death of Guillén was a catalyst for a deeper look at the base.
As news of Guillén’s story exploded in the media, a nationwide grassroots movement sprouted up led by Guillén’s family, veterans, and survivors of sexual violence. Their demands were clear: They wanted Fort Hood closed, and they wanted high-ranking Fort Hood officials charged with criminal negligence. Pam Campos-Palma told Prism that while this week’s news from the Army is important, it is not justice for the Guilléns and other military families affected by Fort Hood’s violence.
As a veteran and senior political strategist for the Working Families Party, Campos-Palma has spent years organizing around military sexual violence and more recently, she has worked closely with the Guillén family. In the hours after the Army announced its unprecedented disciplinary actions against Fort Hood leaders and soldiers, Prism checked in with Campos-Palma to learn more about what this moment means for the movement demanding justice for Guillén. Here is Campos-Palma, in her own words:
I’m having a lot of mixed feelings. I cried a lot yesterday. I feel proud of the rigorous organizing work that led to this moment. This is absolutely an organizing win. Vanessa Guillén’s disappearance and murder in April did not inspire the kind of action we are now seeing in December. Survivors and veterans came together to form a nationwide movement, demanding justice for Vanessa Guillén and that’s what got us here—the report even mentions public scrutiny and media attention. (The Fort Hood Independent Review Committee’s report found “recent negative media attention caused Soldiers to question their environment and fear their surroundings” and that during May and June, Fort Hood faced a “public relations crisis.”)
There are a lot of headlines this week about Fort Hood and disciplinary action, so I want to be very clear about a few things. An independent civilian review of the military is not common. I have lingering questions about how members of the committee were chosen and the scope of the access they were given, but it is unheard of for there to be any kind of accountability. In that way, this is precedent-setting. I also think it’s powerful for everyday soldiers to see people of rank held accountable. But this isn’t justice. The fact that it’s unheard of for top military leaders to pay with their careers and to be charged with criminal negligence—that’s the problem.
We don’t know what it means when [the Army says] that 14 senior officers have been fired and suspended. What does “fired” mean here—and of these 14, who are they? What are their ranks or time in service? I’m worried about the old bad status quo of junior officer and enlisted scapegoated. Col. Ralph Overland, Vanessa Guillén’s commander, was supposedly fired. Does this mean fired from Fort Hood? Moved to another military institution? Do these “fired leaders” get to retire with their rank pay and and go capitalize on being paid pundits, military academics, or tell all writers ? Will he be charged with criminal negligence? This toxicity was not just allowed, but encouraged to fester.
I’ve gotten a lot of heat for saying this, but there’s something fundamentally hypocritical about the military being so trusted. The military is one of the most trusted institutions in American society. President-elect Joe Biden just chose a military general for a Cabinet position. While Fort Hood might have shined a light on the military’s sexual violence and misogyny, those things aren’t just Fort Hood problems. Violent misogyny is military culture; rape culture is military culture, and these things are inherently tied to military training. As an institution, the military has historically discriminated against people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. Our tax dollars go toward all of this. I can’t stand to hear that we have the best military in the world while at the same time, our nation’s leaders watch as our soldiers are raped and disappeared on our own military bases.
The report confirmed that Fort Hood had strong ties to political leaders, which means members of Congress have known about Fort Hood for years. In many ways, the report is just a formal acknowledgment of what so many of us have been saying for years, but the big question is now what are you going to do about it? Are we going to keep settling for crumbs and allowing senior officers to fail up like Mark Milley, who was the commander at Fort Hood for two years and is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer?
Moving forward, we are focused on what the Department of Defense, the president-elect, and Congress will do. This isn’t over, and it’s not the end for us. I believe in veterans organizing for change and I want more veterans to see themselves as organizers, wherever they are. We cannot stop until we have justice for Vanessa Guillén, and this isn’t justice. Real justice requires that we follow the lead of the most harmed. Gloria Guillén, Vanessa’s mom, has been clear that she wants Fort Hood shut down and she wants people charged, not just fired. Gloria doesn’t speak English. She is a formerly undocumented working-class mother, and she took on the Army and inspired a movement. That means something, and we need to honor the Guillén family and continue this fight.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect additional comments by Pam Campos-Palma.