Army Sergeants at Fort Hood Fear for the Safety of Their Soldiers

Noncommissioned officers at the troubled base say they have little faith that military or congressional reviews will change the toxic leadership culture.

Soldiers listen to Taps during a memorial service at Fort Hood April 9, 2014 in Texas.
Soldiers at a memorial service at Fort Hood on April 9, 2014, in Texas. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Seven noncommissioned officers responsible for the training and welfare of soldiers at Fort Hood, the sprawling U.S. Army base in Killeen, Texas, said the environment there has become so dangerous that they fear for the safety of their soldiers.

The five sergeants and two staff sergeants described a toxic leadership culture at Fort Hood that tolerates rampant drug use, sexual harassment, and misconduct on base, and in some instances, has allowed service members accused of sexual assault to remain within their ranks. Three of the NCOs said they’ve witnessed young soldiers in crisis who were ignored by their commanding officers and later attempted suicide.

Since January, there have been 28 deaths at Fort Hood, including five homicides and eight suicides. Four of the deaths are still being investigated, including the most recent on September 2 of Pvt. Corlton Chee, 25, who collapsed during a training exercise and later died. Over the last five years, more soldiers stationed at Fort Hood have been murdered on and off the base than killed in battle.

“I would be scared to send my kid to Fort Hood,” said a sergeant who has served in the Army for nearly a decade. “I don’t think the leadership here at Fort Hood is doing a good job, or any sort of job, to protect their soldiers.”

“I would be scared to send my kid to Fort Hood.”

The NCOs, who were interviewed individually over a span of several weeks, agreed to speak with The Intercept on the condition that they remain anonymous, fearing retribution. They said they were compelled to come forward out of concern that no meaningful change will come from the military and congressional investigations launched in the wake of public outcry over the murder of 20-year-old Vanessa Guillén, a specialist in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment who was killed by another soldier at Fort Hood in April. Guillén’s family has charged that leaders at Fort Hood mishandled the investigation into her disappearance, as well as reports that she had been sexually harassed prior to her murder.

“The public needs to know what’s going on here,” said one of the sergeants. “Because I have no more faith in the federal system or the Army.”

In early August, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy apologized for failing Guillén and her family in a press briefing at Fort Hood, which he characterized as having “the most cases for sexual assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation of the U.S. Army.” McCarthy also said that an independent review would be conducted by five civilian consultants — four veterans and a former FBI agent — into Fort Hood’s leadership culture.

Major General Scott Efflandt, III Corps and Fort Hood Deputy Commander, at a news conference at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, in early July 2020.

Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt at a news conference at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, in July 2020.

Photo: TNS via ZUMA

Three weeks after McCarthy’s briefing, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, base commander at Fort Hood, was removed from his post and reassigned as deputy commanding general for support at the base. At the same time, Army Futures Command Gen. John Murray announced an in-depth investigation into the conduct of the chain of command after Guillén’s disappearance, to accompany the review by the independent panel, which is scheduled to issue its final report on October 30.

But the problems being publicized now involve more than just one leader on post and have been years in the making, said the NCOs, who described an entrenched culture among the chain of command that is openly hostile toward enlisted soldiers and either punishes or ignores those who report harassment or other grievances to their superiors. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘Fuck the Joe’ here,” said the longtime sergeant, using military slang for a private. “It’s a common phrase in the platoon office with all the sergeants. The privates are scared to come out and be like, ‘Hey, this is what’s wrong,’ because they know that if they do, nothing’s going to be addressed, nothing’s going to change because nobody in leadership cares.”

The NCOs, enlisted soldiers who have been promoted through the ranks to train soldiers for combat, said that Fort Hood has a reputation in the Army as a place where problematic leaders from other installations are sent and “careers go to die.” Many of them still thought, however, that they could make a difference individually with their soldiers and help change the leadership culture. They now believe their thinking was naive.

“I came here with the mentality of ‘I’m going to be the change. I’m going to be the fix,’” said the longtime sergeant, who was transferred to Fort Hood after serving overseas. “But within the first week, I was warned by another sergeant, ‘You can try as hard as you want, but you’re not going to change what is going on here.’ And then he just walked away, and I was really taken aback by that.”

Another sergeant said that what he’s witnessed in his time at the base “is just crazy. There’s a lot of drugs in the barracks: marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine. There was even a meth lab for a while, until they were finally caught,” he said. “In the climate here, it’s treated as no big deal.”

Higher-ranking officers who are caught using drugs or accused of sexual harassment or assault are often reassigned to other positions rather than punished, the NCOs said, sending a message of impunity that stokes a climate of fear and distrust on the base.

Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for US Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen at Power House Gym on August 14, 2020, in Houston, Texas.

Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén at Power House Gym on Aug. 14, 2020, in Houston.

Photo: Mark Felix/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Nowhere to Turn

Fort Hood, which has 36,500 active service members spread across the more than 214,000-acre installation in Central Texas, has reported 163 deaths since 2016 — 73 of them ruled as suicides, according to Fort Hood’s public affairs office. The base has the highest number of suicides of any Army base with a comparable or larger population, including Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which has more than 52,000 active-duty soldiers and reported 63 suicides during the same period.

The NCOs said they suspect the high number of suicides is due to bullying and harassment, as well as neglect from commanding officers when a soldier is in crisis. “We get these kids who don’t know anything about anything, and then they have all these crazy adult issues. If I know how to help them, and I can take all that stress off of them, then I should,” said one of the sergeants. “But most who are being promoted don’t care enough to help them.”

The Army provides mental health treatment at its Embedded Behavioral Health clinics, but the NCOs said soldiers are often encouraged not to use these services by leaders concerned it will reflect badly on their own records. “They worry that their own bosses will ask why they have so many soldiers that need to go to EBH,” another sergeant said. “So they try to handle it themselves in house.”

Soldiers who file grievances or seek help are quickly labeled as “crazy or weak,” the sergeant added, and told that it will affect their career.

Fort Hood has reported 163 deaths since 2016 — 73 of them ruled as suicides.

Three of the sergeants described incidents in which soldiers didn’t get the help they needed and then tried to kill themselves. One said he had to physically restrain a soldier from harming himself with a knife.

The sergeant said he went to check on a soldier who was not under his command, but who he knew was having marital problems. “There were signs that something was going to eventually come to a head with this soldier,” he said. After arriving at the soldier’s house and spending time with him and his wife, “He just flipped,” said the sergeant. “I had to wrestle a knife out of his hand, and I was just very lucky that I didn’t get cut.”

Another sergeant said he received a call from a 17-year-old soldier one night who said he was in crisis and needed help. “I asked him why he hadn’t talked to his current team leader, and he told me, ‘Because basically they don’t give a fuck.’ I brought it up to his platoon sergeant and told him, ‘Hey, this dude’s not doing too good.’ And he was like, ‘I deal with my own problems. He can deal with his.’ This is a grown man talking about a 17-year-old,” the sergeant said, still angered by the exchange. “He ended up trying to swallow three bottles of pills and nearly killing himself.”

One of the worst incidents, said the third sergeant, was a troubled young soldier who was ignored by his chain of command after becoming suicidal and overdosed on pills. The soldier survived the suicide attempt, but afterward, in a group chat, his superiors joked about how he should have tried harder to kill himself. A screenshot of the exchange was later sent to the young soldier, who shared it with the other privates in his barracks. “Now none of those soldiers have any trust in anybody that’s over them,” said the sergeant.

A complaint was filed with the Army’s Office of the Inspector General about the incident, the sergeant said, but “we never saw an investigation.”

When Somebody Goes Missing

The NCOs responsible for the well-being of soldiers under their command said it’s also difficult to work in an environment where soldiers disappear from base, and no one knows whether they’re alive or dead. Army protocol is that if someone leaves base and doesn’t return, they are listed as AWOL, then after 30 days as a “deserter.” But the Army, per military policy, doesn’t extensively search for soldiers once they’ve left the base.

Since January, according to Fort Hood’s public affairs office, 95 soldiers have gone AWOL from the base, 25 of whom never returned and were listed as deserters.

“There’s only so much I can do if somebody goes missing,” said one of the sergeants. “We had a kid go AWOL a month ago. We still don’t know where he is. The company commander was in contact with his family, but they don’t seem worried.”

Vanessa Guillén, who went missing in April, was labeled as AWOL by the Army even though her disappearance was suspicious, said the sergeant, who said he never knew Guillén but her disappearance and murder have been the talk of Fort Hood for months. “Her phone is left behind, her car keys,” he said. “This just screams foul play, right?”

Yet it took the command at Fort Hood several weeks to take Guillén’s disappearance seriously. And it was only because her family was so insistent and was able to get the attention of Congress, the sergeant said.

“What’s even crazier,” said another sergeant, “is that in the search for Vanessa Guillén, they found another soldier in a shallow grave.”

Patriot Guard Riders salute as military members carry the casket of Army Private Gregory Wedel-Morales at Green Hill Cemetery in Sapulpa on July 23, 2020.

Patriot Guard Riders salute as military members carry the casket of Army Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales at Green Hill Cemetery in Sapulpa, Okla., on July 23, 2020.

Photo: Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP

The body that local police and Army investigators discovered was that of Pvt. Gregory Morales, a 24-year-old soldier who had gone missing from Fort Hood almost a year earlier. Morales was just days away from being honorably discharged when he disappeared in August 2019, and the Army listed him as a deserter. His death is now being investigated as a possible homicide.

“The military failed him by not looking,” Kimberly Wedel, Morales’s mother, told the Washington Post after her son’s body was identified in June. “They just assumed the worst and let it go.”

Because of the number of soldiers who go AWOL, it would be difficult to launch an extensive search for every soldier, said one of the sergeants. “A lot of the time, it’s just that they don’t want to be in the Army anymore and they leave,” he said. “It’s kind of a touchy subject. But what I think should happen is you file them AWOL, and you file a missing person’s report at the same time, in case something bad did happen.”

Army officials in Washington, D.C., and at Fort Hood would not comment on the NCOs’ allegations other than those regarding Guillén and Army policy regarding missing soldiers who are classified as AWOL. An Army spokesperson told The Intercept that the Army is changing its policy regarding AWOL soldiers, and he said that an extensive search was launched for Guillén after her disappearance on April 22. “More than 500 soldiers searched for Guillén throughout Fort Hood, while CID agents participated in numerous ground, water, and air searches throughout Central Texas,” the spokesperson wrote in an email, referring to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.

Despite these searches, Guillén’s body was not found for more than two months, and her family has accused the Army of indifference and lack of transparency in its criminal investigation into her disappearance. In mid-October, Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, announced in a press conference that the Army would implement a new policy categorizing soldiers as missing until it could determine whether they left their post intentionally, or whether foul play was involved. Guillén’s case “affected us all,” McConville told reporters, according to Stars and Stripes. “And quite frankly, we didn’t take care of her.”

You Just Get Blamed

The Army’s motto for Fort Hood is “The Great Place” because of the purported quality of life it provides to enlisted soldiers and their family members. But the NCOs said that sexual harassment and assault are tolerated on base, and that victims are often retaliated against if they report it to their chain of command.

A female sergeant stationed at Fort Hood described the environment for women as one of almost constant sexual harassment and fear of sexual assault. “People get raped all the time here. They don’t do anything about it,” she said. “They just make you feel like shit, like you are the problem, like females shouldn’t be here.” In June, an Army review team sent to Fort Hood found that more than one-third of the female soldiers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at the base.

It’s no surprise that complaints are brushed aside by higher-ranking officers, the female sergeant said, because they are among the worst offenders.

“No one trusts anyone here. … We are training a whole generation of bad sergeants.”

Not long ago, she said, a sergeant major drugged and raped her off base. She didn’t report it because she didn’t think it would be taken seriously and worried she would be retaliated against. “It’s scary reporting those kinds of things, because it’s usually the woman who gets demoted and gets in trouble,” she said. “You just get blamed.”

If a female soldier makes a sexual assault or harassment complaint against a higher-ranking male soldier, she said, military investigators will frequently side with the man. “They just say that you’re crying wolf about it, because either you didn’t get your way about something or you didn’t want to go do some kind of training.”

One of the staff sergeants said he was disturbed by how allegations of sexual assault are handled, citing the case of a soldier in his platoon who was charged with seven counts of rape or sexual assault while at Fort Hood. One alleged victim was a service member and two were civilians, according to another sergeant familiar with the case. The soldier was held in a civilian jail for several months but was acquitted of the charges in a military trial. He is now back on base.

“The CID couldn’t even put a nail in wood,” said a second staff sergeant. “That’s how useless they are.”

The first staff sergeant also described an incident in which another staff sergeant in his platoon groped a subordinate female soldier as she was preparing to go to sleep. After the soldier filed a complaint, the staff sergeant was demoted, but only for a few months. “He’s now again at the same rank, and in the same squadron as the female soldier,” the first staff sergeant said. “That just breeds an environment where soldiers don’t feel safe.”

The staff sergeant said one reason leadership is willing to look the other way is that Fort Hood is desperate to retain its soldiers. “I would rather go to a deployment undermanned than have somebody that I can’t trust,” he said.

Media outlets gather outside the Bernie Beck gate at Fort Hood on June 3, 2016 in Fort Hood, Texas.

The Bernie Beck gate at Fort Hood on June 3, 2016, in Fort Hood, Texas.

Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

No One Trusts Anyone

Soldiers who attain a rank above staff sergeant are basically untouchable in the Army and protect one another to the detriment of those beneath them, the NCOs said.

“Once you hit a certain rank, everything just gets kicked under the rug,” one of the staff sergeants said. “And unfortunately, these toxic leaders, they just get passed around on this installation, and they just taint another unit.”

“The ones who are sitting in the office all day and saying, ‘Fuck the Joe,’ those are the people who are getting promoted, not the people who actually care about the privates,” the longtime sergeant said. “As a sergeant, I’m not actually shooting when we’re attacking the enemy. I’m telling them to shoot. I’m telling them where to go. So my thinking is they’re the most important asset I have. While a lot of the other sergeants getting promoted, they don’t even go out and have interactions with their guys. They just text them and tell them what to do, and then yell at them when they do something wrong.”

This toxic leadership is learned on base, and it creates an unsafe environment for everybody, the sources said. Even worse, it makes them vulnerable on the battlefield. “No one trusts anyone here. There’s no brotherhood. No camaraderie. It starts with the NCOs and goes all the way up the chain of command,” said the longtime sergeant. “We are training a whole generation of bad sergeants, and that’s going to affect lethality and deployment.”

The NCOs said they are doing everything within their power to be transferred from Fort Hood. Two of them are planning to quit the Army altogether. “My grandfather was at Fort Hood before WWII, and it was the highlight of his life,” said the longtime sergeant. “He loved the Army, and so did I before I was sent here. I really thought I would make a career of it. But when I told him about my experiences at Fort Hood, he was the one who rationalized it for me and told me I should get out. ‘That’s not the Army I grew up in, and it’s clearly not the Army you grew up in,’ he told me. ‘Do you want to be responsible for someone else’s death, because someone else didn’t care?’”

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