WASHINGTON – Every week, Army Lt. Gen. Pat White dons his workout clothes and walks through the neighborhoods at Fort Hood with his wife, Emma, and golden retriever Sadie, looking for some unvarnished feedback from the soldiers at his embattled Texas base.
As Fort Hood's commander, White faces the immense task of rebuilding trust and turning around an installation that has one of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army, and drew unwelcome national attention this year because of the disappearance and brutal murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen.
He knows it will take time to correct what some believe are systemic leadership failures at the base, and that some units will respond more quickly than others. White agrees that he and other commanders bear some responsibility for the problems.
“I think all leadership is accountable for it, if you’re in this chain of command,” White said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. “We have got to do everything we can to get this back on track.”
Senior Army leaders have made clear that changes must be made at the base, where many have complained about a command culture that failed to address persistent problems, including sexual assaults and suicides.
How much responsibility White personally bears is debatable because he spent much of the past year deployed to Iraq with his senior leadership team. An independent review into the command climate at the base will weigh in on that question, and is expected to find fault with some commanders and how they handled the Guillen case and other deaths and disciplinary issues. Among those may be Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who was left in charge of the base when White deployed, and was already denied a new leadership post as a result of the ongoing investigations.
White acknowledges that communications with commanders back at Fort Hood were spotty when he was in Iraq. “We tried, once a week,” he said, in his first extensive remarks since returning to Texas. “Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not.” He added that if he had been in Texas rather than Iraq, “I do things differently than other commanders do things, and so maybe I would have self-discovered some of these challenges.”
White said he also thinks the events at Fort Hood that drew so much scrutiny this year, while horrible, aren't “any different than any other installation.” How they came to light this year, he added, “will be actually good for our Army and good for this particular installation because we can now make change.”
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, however, has questioned whether there is a toxic environment at the base, and has pledged to hold leaders accountable. So far this year, 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood have died due to suicide, homicide or accidents, compared with 32 last year and 24 in 2018.
According to investigators, Guillen, 20, was bludgeoned to death at Fort Hood by Spc. Aaron Robinson, who killed himself on July 1 as police were trying to take him into custody. Guillan was missing for more than two months before her remains were found, Her family has said Robinson had sexually harassed her. The Army has said there is no evidence supporting the claim.
McCarthy said in a statement this past week that his initial review of the independent commission's report on Fort Hood “hardened my belief that the Army’s SHARP program hasn’t achieved its mandate to eliminate sexual assaults and sexual harassment by creating a climate that respects the dignity of every member of the Army family.” SHARP is the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.
McCarthy said the report's findings will be released on Dec. 8. An in-depth investigation into Guillen's death is also underway.
White has given all his Fort Hood commanders until Christmas to hold a five-day session to ensure that unit leaders know how to train and counsel their troops, know what programs are available for any in need, and take initial steps to get to know their soldiers. He set up a hotline that soldiers can call anonymously to report leadership problems, which is averaging about 30 calls a week.
“We may have been assuming that our squad and platoon and company leaders understood the programs that were available for their soldiers,” White said. “We may have been assuming that units understood the processes, the procedures by which, when a soldier goes missing, we engage immediately.”
On a more personal level, White is turning to the activity deeply embedded in every solder — the daily workouts and runs that are the bedrock of every base. He said he's working out with various sections of his key staff on Mondays and with colonels on the base on Tuesdays. He's also meeting with about a dozen young soldiers every Tuesday afternoon to just listen and get feedback.
And he walks the dog.
The jaunts with his wife and Sadie, he said, provide a way to meet soldiers when he's out of uniform. It's easier, he said, to get “unvarnished comments by the residents when you walk around in your civilian clothes and you don’t identify yourself until you’re done talking.”
White said he has developed goals to help measure progress over the next year, including whether there has been improvement in the number of assaults, accidents, alcohol incidents, problematic urine tests and soldiers who are AWOL.
“I will almost predict, based on having served in the Army for 34 years,” he said, “that there will be some units where it’s going to work and there will be some units where it’s not.”