How the Army Is Revamping Its Culture in the Wake of Tragedy

How the Army Is Revamping Its Culture in the Wake of Tragedy

People pay respects at a vigil for Vanessa Guillén, a U.S. Army soldier murdered at Fort Hood in 2020.
People pay respects at a vigil for Vanessa Guillén, a U.S. Army soldier murdered at Fort Hood in 2020. Sergio Flores/Getty Images

A series of troubling incidents within the U.S. Army—including the killing of Specialist Vanessa Guillén in 2020—has prompted the military service to push for major changes to its culture. 

June 2, 2022 3:00 pm (EST)

People pay respects at a vigil for Vanessa Guillén, a U.S. Army soldier murdered at Fort Hood in 2020.
People pay respects at a vigil for Vanessa Guillén, a U.S. Army soldier murdered at Fort Hood in 2020. Sergio Flores/Getty Images
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What happened at Fort Hood that triggered this reform effort?

On April 22, 2020, a twenty-year-old U.S. Army specialist named Vanessa Guillén was bludgeoned to death by another soldier while on duty at Fort Hood. Home to more than thirty-eight thousand soldiers in central Texas, Fort Hood is one of the largest military bases in the United States. Guillén’s untimely death was one of many at the base that year, which included murders, suicides, and fatal accidents.   

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Her killer removed and hid her body miles from the base, which prompted a search involving thousands of soldiers, law enforcement, and concerned citizens. Her remains were finally found on June 30. The army was rocked by Guillén’s murder, which garnered worldwide media coverage and generated backlash from her family, Latino advocacy groups, Congress, and the public. That July, the Army launched a major investigation into the command climate and culture at Fort Hood and among its military community.

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The investigation came at a time when an increasing number of troops were reporting low morale, a culture of sexual harassment, and a lack of trust. Furthermore, soldiers—like all people—were adapting to COVID-19 lockdowns and social tensions after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020. Over the past two decades, the quick tempo of soldiers deploying to the Middle East, South Asia, South Korea, and the southwestern U.S. border put stress on troops and their families and eroded morale. Some tactical unit leaders focused on training and maintenance, often at the expense of getting to know their soldiers and building trust.

The Department of Defense has long struggled to eliminate sexual harassment and assault from its ranks. The Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office has reported grim statistics about sexual crimes in the military since its creation in 2012. Military bases with a high proportion of junior troops and a lower percentage of women tend to have high incidences of sexual assault and harassment; Fort Hood is one of those locations and not necessarily an outlier. The military has not been exempt from the #MeToo movement.

What did the investigation find?

After a three-month inquiry, the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee published a 136-page report with nine major findings, including: a poorly run sexual assault and harassment prevention program, inefficiencies in the criminal investigations office, deficiencies in Fort Hood’s public relations operations, a lack of policy and procedures for handling missing soldiers, and unsafe surroundings around the military base.

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How did the U.S Army respond?

The Secretary of the Army established a People First Task Force to implement the Fort Hood investigation’s recommendations, which consisted of improvements to safety, sexual assault investigations, criminal investigations, and human resources. Serious changes have been made in the past eighteen months across the Army and in the other services, and more are on the way. More than 80 percent of the task force’s recommendations should be implemented by the end of this summer. Some will require new federal legislation or Defense Department policy changes.

At its core, the People First strategy is about building trust. It’s about creating a more positive working and living environment and a culture in which all troops trust their leaders and peers. Trust is recognized by Army leaders as the top factor for building unit cohesion and morale and for reducing harmful behaviors such as suicide, sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, racism, and extremism. The emphasis on culture change is both top-down and bottom-up.

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What about policymakers in Washington?

People First initiatives were directed by guidance from the White House, the Defense Department, and new federal laws. The most recent National Defense Authorization Act and a January 2022 executive order by President Joe Biden incorporated the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, legislation that designated sexual harassment as a crime in the military and mandates external investigations for accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

With these reforms, victims of sexual assault have immediate access to medical, investigative, legal, and support services, which may include Special Victims Counsel. Under new sexual harassment policy, investigators from outside the victim’s chain of command are assigned to the case for impartiality. Victims of domestic violence have access to similar resources. To help solve crimes, the U.S. Army has placed an experienced civilian law enforcement executive to lead its Criminal Investigation Command. The position was previously held by a major general and would rotate every few years.

Meanwhile, there are new policies to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. These include more time for postpartum leave and more options for hairstyles and grooming to improve health and encourage individual expression. Additionally, billions of dollars have been allocated to construct and upgrade housing, barracks, and fitness and recreational facilities.

What does this mean for the average soldier?

Many Army units now dedicate significant time for leaders and soldiers to bond. There are new “foundation days,” during which officers and sergeants clear time for team-building, counseling, and calling soldiers’ homes to establish relationships with their “golden triangle” of family and friends.

When a new soldier arrives, they can expect to be met by a dedicated reception team. Then, their squad leaders share stories and introduce the new soldier to their team. This is a two-way process, as the young lieutenants and sergeants share their backgrounds during walk-and-talks in the motor pools and weapons ranges.

Leaders who fail to meet standards are investigated and, at times, sacked. Each of the Army’s installations publicizes disciplinary actions taken against offenders for the sake of transparency.

What are these reforms expected to achieve?

Teams built on trust have higher morale and, ultimately, are more effective: Where morale is high, troops are more disciplined, receive stronger support from families, and provide better support to one another. In recent weeks, the world has seen highly motivated Ukrainian troops successfully defend their land against Russian conscripts with low morale. The lessons from Eastern Europe apply to the U.S. Army and the other armed services in our all-volunteer force.

Are the other military services enacting similar policies?

Yes. The Defense Department and the other services have initiated several policies and programs to promote a positive culture and more supportive environment for their personnel and families.

How is the Army changing the way it develops leaders?

After Fort Hood, the Army is expanding a rigorous multiday program it began in 2019 to evaluate senior officers selected to lead battalions (approximately 700 troops) and brigades (approximately 3,500 troops). Prior to 2019, these critical leadership positions were assigned based only on an officer’s performance record. There was no in-person interview, no psychological assessment, no peer evaluation—not even a physical fitness test.

Across the Army, there are also more mentorship groups (similar to employee resource groups found in large corporations) that provide leadership development and forums for women and minority groups. Some of these programs are Sisters in Arms, The Rocks, Inc., Pan-Pacific American Leaders and Mentors, and Military Mentors. To help broaden leadership perspectives, the Army has been reaching out to authors and inspirational speakers, such as Simon Sinek, Jennifer Brown, and Gary Chapman.

How are the reforms being received by Army personnel?

The People First policy is continually assessed by interdisciplinary teams of statisticians, operations officers, and behavioral health experts who travel from post to post collecting information.

Some initial findings from anonymous surveys (that are not yet formally public) are encouraging: soldiers who are aware of and participate in People First expressed positive sentiments. An act as small as a phone call by a leader to a junior soldier’s “golden triangle” can improve their level of trust by more than 25 percent. These “golden triangle” calls also increase the likelihood of a soldier reporting or discussing problems with a supervisor. Notably, soldiers indicating high trust in their immediate supervisors were one-third less likely to screen positive for a behavioral health problem, such as depression, anxiety, or hazardous alcohol use.

Still, soldiers continue to report witnessing harmful behavior, such as prejudice and bullying, though the rate of witnessing such behaviors has been stable throughout the assessments. Importantly, 60 percent of soldiers who witness a harmful behavior indicate in the most recent survey that they are willing to intervene to stop these behaviors—up from about 25 percent from the initial survey.

Overall, the survey findings show that the Army is in a better place now than it was in 2020, mainly due to People First reforms. Yet, some soldiers expressed concern that the People First initiatives will wane if the military’s fast operations tempo resumes. So it’s imperative that leaders from top to bottom continue to listen to, solicit, and implement policy recommendations from their troops to keep a feedback loop on Army culture.

Capt. Arabia Alston-Bannister, U.S. Army, contributed to this article. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

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