Vowing to have "very hard conversations,'' Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy met with soldiers this week at Fort Hood, where at least eight service members have been found dead since March.
Most questions directed at McCarthy during a 24-minute news conference Thursday regarded Spc. Vanessa Guillen, whose remains were identified in early July. Guillen had been missing since late April.
Her family, who met with President Trump last week, has alleged Guillen was sexually harassed at Fort Hood. The case has drawn international media attention and inspired other women to recount their experiences with sexual harassment on social media.
"We must honor her memory by creating enduring change,'' McCarthy said.
An independent command climate review will begin at Fort Hood at the end of August, McCarthy said. He also touted Project Inclusion, a recently announced initiative addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault, a lack of diversity, discrimination and suicide in the Army.
Depending on investigators' findings, McCarthy said changes in leadership at Fort Hood could occur.
"If the conclusions are such that point to leaders or individuals in particular, of course, we would take the appropriate accountability,'' McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he held nine sessions with soldiers of various ranks during his two-day visit to Fort Hood. His arrival came less than a week after Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas' body was recovered Sunday.
Besides Guillen, other Fort Hood soldiers who have died in the past several months include Pvt. 2nd Class Gregory Morales, Pvt. Mejhor Morta, Pfc. Brandon Rosecrans, Spc. Freddy Delacruz Jr., Spc. Christopher Sawyer and Spc. Shelby Jones.
Spc. Aaron Robinson served in the same regiment as Guillen, 20, and killed her, investigators said. Robinson killed himself as law enforcement officials closed in on him. Cecily Aguilar, who allegedly helped Robinson dispose of Guillen's body, has pleaded not guilty to three charges of tampering with evidence. Aguilar is being held without bond.
"These are very difficult things,'' McCarthy said. "We're the Army. We're a reflection of the country, and at times, some people infiltrate our ranks. We've got to find them. We've got to root them out.''
Although McCarthy conceded sexual harassment is an issue, investigators have found no evidence so far that Guillen faced such abuse. While admitting that Fort Hood has the most cases of murder and sexual assault of any Army base, he said closing it is not under consideration.
"The anger and frustration in a case like Vanessa is necessary,'' McCarthy said. "I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I'm disappointed. We're heartbroken, but there's still amazing contributions from men and women at this installation.''
McCarthy's comments came on the same day that Mayra Guillen posted on Twitter that she received her sister's belongings. "I don't even want to open them … find things or clothes that we shared,'' she tweeted.
Supporters came together Wednesday in Houston, Guillen's hometown, to urge Congress to pass the #IamVanessaGuillen bill, which would make it easier for military members to report sexual harassment and assault.
Guillen's family reportedly intends to be at Fort Hood on Friday afternoon. McCarthy planned to return to the Pentagon on Thursday night but said he would see whether he could adjust his schedule to meet the family. He said he has expressed his condolences in public and shared those thoughts in a letter to the family, but he has yet to meet Guillen's relatives in person.
McCarthy referred to Guillen's case as a "tipping point.''
"We are incredibly disappointed that we let Vanessa down and we let their family down,'' McCarthy said. "We vow for the rest of our time in service in our life to prevent these types of acts.''
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