When Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s remains were found near her Fort Hood, Texas, duty station, after her family had been saying for months that she’d be sexually harassed by a member of her unit, the Army sent an inspector general to the post to audit its Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention program. He gave it the all-clear.
Five months later, an independent panel dropped a bombshell report detailing a toxic command climate and environment of sexual harassment and assault at Fort Hood, specifically calling out that Army Forces Command IG team, who didn’t investigate Guillen’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
“Excuse me, but he failed. He absolutely failed in his job,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said Thursday, presiding over a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee. “He talked to very few people. He came back with the wrong assessment. He was criticized by this independent review committee, and he’s still in his position.”
She was talking to the Army Department’s lead IG, Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith, after he informed her that the FORSCOM IG in question is still in his position.
“I think that was investigative malpractice. And for that individual to still be in that position — I’m not suggesting he be fired, but he shouldn’t be in that position. And that’s part of the problem,” Speier said. “We need to professionalize these component IGs and make them independent or they’re not going to provide the value that we expect from them.”
Smith acknowledged there was a “problem area of not talking to enough people, not making sure we had the right break down for the numbers of organizations or people we talked to. And the right gender.”
The exchange punctuated a hearing that kicked off with an impassioned statement from Gordon Heddell, the Defense Department inspector general from 2001 to 2008, specifically calling attention to military IG culture.
In recent years, inspectors general have been in the spotlight as the services make efforts to reduce sexual assault. Though commanders and the military criminal justice system handle those reports, retaliation from leadership following a report is a common concern.
In those cases, a local inspector general will look into accusations of retaliation, but as Heddell pointed out, those investigators are working within the chain of command accused in the first place.
Reading from Army Regulation 20-1, the policy that governs IG activities, Heddell noted that it describes an IG as beholden to his or her commander, “the conscience of their commanders.”
They must understand the commander’s personality and serve as a confidante to the commander, it continues.
“The regulation appears to tacitly imply a reverence for the commander that is inappropriate for an inspector general,” Heddell said.
The entire system needs an overhaul he said, turning it both into a profession and its own chain of command.
Currently, the services and component units have uniformed inspectors general that rotate in and out of the job on a roughly four-year basis, passing in and out of their occupational specialties.
“In my opinion, it takes a lot longer than that to develop the kind of knowledge and commitment and the allegiance to what is right within the ranks of the military,” Heddell said.
A better system would create a professional school for uniformed IGs, teaching them the processes and principles of the job, rather than having them learn on the job and lean so heavily on the career civilians in their offices.
They should become warrant officers, Heddell added, with their own chain of command, so that IGs are beholden to each other rather than to commanders, and they can report issues within the community up that chain. They should also have their own legal services resources, independent of commands.
And, importantly, he added, there should be policy that commanders are not allowed to get previews of IG findings or be able to edit them, which goes on now.
These changes would go a long way to helping the services and DoD communicate that the offices in charge of investigating misconduct, most notably retaliation after reporting sexual assault, are independent and empowered.
“We’ve reached a point with respect to assault, harassment, retaliation — all of these things are undermining,” Heddell said. “The central thought among rank-and-file members is that the military takes care of its own. Well, I’m sure they still believe in that, and I’m sure to a great extent they do, but that’s not happening.”
Of 350 investigations into retaliation in 2019, only one official was fired, according to a 2019 report by Roll Call.
“I think it sends a signal that retaliation is tolerated, and is an inconvenience at most,” Mandy Smithberger, director of Center for Defense Information Project On Government Oversight, told Speier.
Heddell echoed that sentiment.
“You don’t see many substantiations and, I think the statistics alone tell you that there is a concern,” he added.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.