KILLEEN, TX – Senate Armed Services Committee leaders paid a visit Fort Hood, Texas this week in the wake of a new campaign by the post's new senior commander to rebuild soldier trust following the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs committee, and ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., met with Maj. Gen. John Richardson IV, the new deputy commander of III Corps and Fort Hood during a visit to the installation on Monday.
Both lawmakers said they were encouraged that Richardson has launched a year-long effort designed to improve unit cohesion at the installation that has suffered 28 soldier deaths this year including Guillen, a 20-year-old 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier allegedly murdered by a fellow soldier.
"We had a productive day at Fort Hood, where it is clear that the new leadership is making positive changes to improve the command culture and climate on base," Inhofe and Reed said in a joint statement. "We saw clearly how a breakdown of cohesion among too many units resulted in the problems we've seen recently."
The senators' visit to Hood comes after Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the chair of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, and several other lawmakers visited the base in mid-September searching for answers in the series of tragic soldier deaths at the base. Guillen was missing from April until July when her remains were discovered off-post.
Army Spc. Aaron Robinson is accused of murdering Guillen on post and with the help of 22-year-old Cecily Aguilar, a civilian and the estranged wife of a Fort Hood soldier, who reportedly smuggled her body to a remote site in Bell County, where they allegedly mutilated and disposed of it.
Robinson shot and killed himself June 30 when confronted by police, and Aguilar was charged with conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
"The tragic murder of Vanessa Guillen has made sure the Army and Senate Armed Services Committee are focused on Fort Hood," the senators said in their statement. "We're going to make sure the issues are fixed and won't let up until we get to the bottom of it. We saw firsthand the outpouring of love and respect Spc. Guillen's colleagues and community had for her and we owe it to her, her family, and every soldier to ensure justice is served."
In early September, Army Forces Command sent Richardson to replace Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt as the senior commander at Hood until the current III Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Pat White, returns next month. White has been deployed as the leader of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, which oversees the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Efflandt and other leaders at Hood are the subject of multiple investigations to examine the command climate at Hood and whether it set the conditions for Guillen's murder.
On Sept. 28, Richardson ordered a week-long training standdown designed to give leaders time to invest in relationship with their soldiers in an attempt to rebuild unit cohesion.
The pause to training is part of a year-long effort, dubbed Operation Phantom Action, that's designed to "reset and re-baseline expectations of leaders," Sgt. Maj. Joey Thompson, a spokesman for Fort Hood, told Military.com.
The intensity of training demands has caused unit leaders to neglect taking the time to know their soldiers and build strong bonds of trust, Thompson said.
"The number one thing that gets in the way of doing that effectively is time," Thompson said. "In order for us to be able to do this, we need to give commanders time to do it.
"The way we do that is by taking things off the calendar for a week -- a recertification plan from top to bottom from the deputy commanding general down to the team leader."
Another way to rebuild trust is to ensure soldiers know leaders are being held accountable, Richardson told Military.com.
"I think right now soldiers don't see leaders being held accountable," Richardson said.
An example of this could be ensuring a lieutenant gets a general officer letter of reprimand for driving under the influence of alcohol, Richardson said.
"I think everybody in the company should know that," Richardson said. "It should not be, the lieutenant came up and got his letter of reprimand from me, and it just goes into his file and no one ever knows. That should be public knowledge in the company."
Richardson's back-to-basics approach made an impression on Inhofe and Reed.
"While serious changes need to be made, we were both encouraged by the accountability and commitment to change we saw from [Maj.] Gen. Richardson, who took command just five weeks ago," according to Inhofe and Reed's statement. "He promised us we'd see a new command climate at Fort Hood in 90 days. We look forward to visiting again then."