It was a year full of the unexpected, not just at Fort Hood, but around the world. Internationally, a massive brush fire devastated Australia, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex shocked the world when they announced they were leaving the royal life behind, while unsubstantiated rumors ran rampant about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Nationally, President Donald Trump lost the presidential race in a controversial election, California Senator Kamala Harris was elected as the first female vice president, alongside president-elect Joe Biden. The many untimely deaths of 2020 included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman, rock legend Eddie Van Halen, basketball great Kobe Bryant and movie legend Sean Connery, among others.
COVID-19 impacted lives everywhere, but at Fort Hood, the pandemic showed people’s true spirit and brought people together. In 2020, the installation also suffered tragedy and planned for the future.
COVID-19 began impacting the Army in March, which caused a Department of Defense-directed 14-day quarantine for the units filtering through the Great Place to and from their overseas deployments.
The Hood Mobilization Brigade handles all the logistics for the mobilizing and demobilizing Army Reserve and National Guard units, working alongside First Army – Division West to validate, mobilize and demobilize the troops. Shortly after COVID hit the installation, quarantine procedures were quickly put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. While the Hood Mob. Bde. handled the logistics side of the house, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment was tasked with caring for the quarantine side.
Around the same time, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, then-III Corps and Fort Hood deputy commander, issued a mission essential manning order on March 24. As offices closed shop, employees began working virtually to continue assisting Fort Hood families.
“We are finding innovative ways to deliver our services,” Karen Bradshaw, the manager of the Financial Readiness Branch within Army Community Service, said about the impact.
As major cities across the country struggled to contain the virus, 250 medical personnel from the 1st Medical Brigade’s 9th Hospital Center deployed March 25-28 from Robert Gray Army Airfield to New York City, establishing the country’s largest healthcare facility in operation.
The joint task force made up of medical personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and United States Public Health Service converted the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center into the Javits New York Medical Station, with the space to accommodate nearly 2,910 beds. It was originally designed to clear up hospitals to focus on COVID-19 patients, but changed to suit the needs of the city, state and country, which was to help COVID-19 patients.
“This is a fantastic mission. We are absolutely making a difference in the lives of countless people and we are proud to represent the U.S. Army, III Corps, Fort Hood and the 1st Medical Brigade,” Lt. Col. Jarrod McGee, commander of the 11th Field Hospital and deputy commander of the 9th Hospital Center, said in April. “We want to help alleviate the stress on the local healthcare systems by supporting the greater national effort.”
While Soldiers provided medical care in New York, Fort Hood families showed why Fort Hood is called the Great Place, as they began making masks for free. Shortly after COVID hit the United States, masks were selling out at stores across the country. Several creative spouses began making homemade cloth masks due to the shortages in stores and demand to help reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
“I have donated or gifted every single mask made. I don’t believe it is right to charge for something so simple and helpful for the well-being of another person. I love what I do and most of all, I love creating things for other people,” Taylor Kellam, spouse of Cpl. Amber Kellam, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Division, said. “There’s nothing greater than seeing someone smile and glow when admiring something you have made with your own hands specifically for them.”
Spouses also set up “giving tables” outside their homes, hoping to help other families looking for hard-to-find items. While stores across the country sold out of toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, eggs, meat and baby formula, some stores here in Central Texas also had shortages of canned food.
In an effort to help those in needs, Comanche III resident Briana Corey placed a “giving table” outside her home. Within four hours, the table was packed with food and by the second day, an additional table was added. Spouses in other neighborhoods followed suit to help share the love.
“Thank you so much,” Corey said, hoping to reach families who were donating to the table. “It’s helping so many families in a difficult time like this and I know they really appreciate it.”
Tragedy at Fort Hood
On the morning of April 22, Spc. (then Pfc.) Vanessa Guillen was working in her unit’s arms room and was last seen at approximately 11:30 a.m. in the parking lot of the Regimental Engineer Squadron, 3rd Cav. Regt. After her unit could not find her that same day, they conducted a search and discovered her car keys, barracks room key and identification card in the arms room.
Soldiers within the regiment searched daily for Guillen throughout Fort Hood’s more than 214,000-acres – in buildings, barracks, fields, training areas, lakes and trails. After notification by her unit, CID initiated an investigation on April 23 and led search teams throughout the installation, including the live-fire ranges.
Special Agent Damon Phelps, senior special agent of Fort Hood CID, revealed that since the investigation began, agents conducted more than 300 interviews, more than 10,000 investigative hours and worked very closely with numerous agencies. Outside agencies include the FBI, Killeen Police Department, Belton Police Department, Texas Rangers, U.S. Marshals and the Texas Department of Public Safety, among others.
The young Soldier’s story gripped the nation, as her family spoke out, begging people to come forward with information about what happened to their daughter, sister and friend … trying to make sense of what happened. Although CID maintained contact with the family throughout the investigation, they could not reveal any details that could compromise the ongoing investigation and future prosecution of those involved.
Guillen’s remains were found near the Leon River, between Belton and Little River Academy on June 30, but Fort Hood officials waited until positive identification was made through forensic testing before they concluded the two-month search for the missing 20-year-old Soldier and notified the next of kin, in accordance with Army Regulation 638-2. A July 2 affidavit released to the public by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office – Western District of Texas, said Guillen’s dismembered remains were found by contractors working on a fence adjacent to the Leon River in Bell County.
“Our investigation has identified two suspects in the connection with Spc. Guillen’s disappearance,” Phelps revealed. “We are aware that there have been statements made that there are others, but at this point, that is incorrect. We have identified two suspects.”
Suspects included Spc. Aaron David Robinson and Cecily Ann Aguilar. Aguilar has been arrested in conjunction with the case and charged with conspiracy to tamper with evidence. Robinson, a Fort Hood Soldier assigned to 3rd Cav. Regt., committed suicide in Killeen when confronted by police officers during the early hours of July 1.
On Nov. 10, Lt. Gen. Pat White, III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general, announced the installation’s intention of naming a gate in memory of Guillen. White met with Guillen’s family and family attorney to discuss the gate and showed them the plans they have.
“The gate is accessed by thousands of Soldiers, civilians and families every day,” the general noted. “A memorial gate in honor of Vanessa – a proud Texan – will serve as a reminder to take care of each other and inspire the next generation of Soldiers and the surrounding community.”
Natalie Khawam, the Guillen family attorney, held a press conference at the Bernie Beck Main Gate. She said that while the Guillen family will never forget Vanessa’s loss, now is the time to forgive, and to work together for the betterment of all.
“Working together is the best way,” she said. “As Gloria Guillen told the generals today, … she prays to God, and what does God say? God says to forgive, right? We have to forgive.”
The road ahead
Following III Corps’ return from the Middle East, White said they would be prioritizing Operation People First, a back-to-basics, people-first approach to leadership, focused on restoring the fundamentals of engaged personal leadership to restore trust with Soldiers, families, civilians and military communities.
Operation People First is currently being conducted in three phases. The first phase began in October with a III Corps-wide People First Action Week, focused on leaders learning more about their Soldiers. Phase two incorporates leader certification programs and a servant leadership forum. Phase three will culminate in assessments to analyze the effectiveness of the initiative.
White said Operation People First will be a sustained effort that will affect permanent change across the entire force. The general said they will know if Operation People First is working because they will see it through measurable changes in reenlistments, sexual assault and sexual harassment reporting, as well as case numbers.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Guillen’s tragic death, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy ordered an independent committee review of Fort Hood’s command climate. During the 103-day investigation, the committee looked into whether the installation reflected the Army’s values, safety, respect, inclusiveness, and a commitment to diversity, as well as a closer look into the sexual harassment and sexual assault cases on base. The committee surveyed 31,612 Soldiers and interviewed 647 Soldiers. McCarthy said the panel provided nine findings and 70 recommendations in its report.
The findings of the independent command climate review resulted in 14 officers and noncommissioned officers being relieved or suspended from their positions. White took swift action, having the news delivered to those affected on Dec. 8.
“In my 33 years of service, that was the biggest gut punch I’ve ever received,” White said during a Dec. 8 press conference. “We’ve got a problem we’ve got to fix, but a three-star general can’t fix it on his own. I absolutely need you to be on the team. We are not going to fix some of the challenges we have here at Fort Hood unless you get onboard.”
McCarthy said he has decided to accept the findings and has created a People First Task Force to develop a plan to tackle the issues head-on. He stated that the task force’s strategies will be implemented Army-wide by March 2021.
“While the independent review focused on the command climate and culture at Fort Hood, the findings contained in the committee’s report impact the entire Army of more than one million Soldiers, 247,000 civilians, and their families,” McCarthy added. “The People First Task Force will analyze the findings and 70 recommendations in the report, develop a plan to address the issues identified by the committee, and reevaluate current policy and programs.”
Following the press conference regarding the independent review findings, White met with 1,800 junior enlisted Soldiers at Hood Stadium to address the investigation report and encourage them to be part of the solution through the Operation People First initiative.
The first step toward a positive change is implementing recommendations from the independent review committee.
Following the findings, the Army announced a new category for missing Soldiers. During the first 48 hours a Soldier is missing, he or she will be classified “Absent-Unknown.” During this time, units will have time to conduct a thorough search for the missing Soldier before being classified as “Absent Without Leave.”
The SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program) 360 training is expanding to all III Corps locations.
III Corps has also revived its Good Order and Discipline Boards and will keep Soldiers updated on off-limits establishments.
White has also directed company commanders and first sergeants to conduct barracks and home visits on a regular basis.
“Our focus remains building cohesive teams through our corps-wide Operation People First,” White said.
“Listening to Soldiers is more important than ever.”