Secretary of the Army Press Briefing at Fort Hood

By Audricia HarrisAugust 6, 2020

Secretary of the Army Press Briefing, Fort Hood August 6, 2020

Secretary McCarthy: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to hear from me today. Fort Hood is of great importance to and for the Army, but it is our people that are paramount. I wanted to come to Fort Hood so that I can listen to the force at every level, understand what soldiers endure, talk to leaders within the communities and actively understand the culture here, both on and off base.

Spanish translation

Secretary McCarthy: This year has been a challenging one for the nation, and because the Army is representative of the country, we have many of the same issues within our formation. With the explosion of social unrest across the nation following the murder of George Floyd the Army is committed to taking a hard look at ourselves. In doing so there has been a reckoning.

Spanish translation

Secretary McCarthy: We have to address the challenges and barriers that our soldiers endure. The murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén has become a catalyst highlighting sexual harassment and sexual assault within the military. The loss of Vanessa has been felt in our formations, particularly here and across the nation. I can personally attest to these conversations. Over the past three weeks I have traveled to Poland and Italy and in both visits, soldiers have asked about this.

Vanessa’s story has served as a tipping point where survivors spoke out on social media and shared their own trauma. We must honor her memory by creating enduring change as one harassment and one assault is one too many.

Spanish translation

Secretary McCarthy: The Army takes charges of sexual harassment and assault very seriously, and there is clearly more that must be done. I have directed an independent review of the command climate and once complete will provide an update to the media and the Congress. Ultimately, the results, findings and recommendations will fuel an implementation team chaired by the under Secretary of the Army and the vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

Spanish translation

Secretary McCarthy: In addition, we are rolling out project inclusion to address behaviors that tear at the fabric of our force - issues such as a lack of diversity, discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault and suicides.

Spanish translation

Secretary McCarthy: With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

Moderator: Okay, the first question will go to Rose Thayer Stars and Stripes.

Rose: Hi, sir. Thank you for taking the time to come down to Texas. My question relates to looking into the unit specifically. I know from the outside looking in there's been some instances where it seems like leadership maybe was negligent or didn't get the job done as far - even as early back as when Vanessa first went missing all the way to Specialist Robinson being able to escape from barracks confinement. So, I'm wondering what does it look like as you look into that unit and could we see someone maybe get relieved or something like that?

Secretary McCarthy: So, we have a series of Investigations, obviously the criminal investigation related to the specific individuals that conspired for the murder or helped to cover up the murder. So, that's being handled by assistant US attorney here in Texas. We have a 15-6 investigation into the unit, as well as an independent review that will be coming down to Fort Hood at the end of this month. So, we'll have to do a lot of coordination on the findings related to these reviews and then once that information comes back make determinations of appropriate levels of accountability.

Rose: Okay, and I just want to confirm in my follow-up - the 15-6 - is that looking just at sexual harassment within third CR or is that also looking into sort of negligence as letting something like this continue or happen in the unit?

Secretary McCarthy: I believe the 15-6 is specifically into the issue for Vanessa, for her murder. So, they'll find out specifics related to her. The command climate review that I referenced, that I instructed, the independent review, will come down and look also at the command climate installation. So is there a sexual harassment type of toxic environment that exists? That can help us better understand more broadly because is it the third ACR at large or is it the entire installation?

Rose: Okay. Thank you.

Secretary McCarthy: Anything you want to add?

Speaker:  (Inaudible) the 15-6 investigation sexual harassment is looking at reports of harassment that were discovered as part of the investigation into Specialist Guillén’s murder.

Rose: Okay. I think that clears it up.

Secretary McCarthy: Okay.

Jasmine: Hi Mr. McCarthy. My name is Jasmine Caldwell. I’m from KCEN which is the NBC affiliate here locally. The question I want to ask is last week Vanessa Guillén’s family met with Donald, President Donald Trump, and I was wondering have you reached out to the family? If you have, what did you talk to them about? If you have not, why haven't you reached out?

Secretary McCarthy: I have also spoken publicly, but we have offered, we sent condolences to the family, obviously. General McConville participated in the memorial service here. He actually met with the family for over an hour as well. I've said publicly I would be very open to meeting with the family. We have not been contacted directly about whether the family would want to meet with me directly.

Jasmine: Okay. Thank you.

Brendan: Secretary McCarthy, how are you? Brendan Hamilton at KWTX news 10, the CBS affiliate here. My question for you is being the Secretary of the Army, not only Vanessa's case, but there have been other cases involving Fort Hood soldiers sadly being found murdered or dead surrounding the base. To the Americans that are watching and your leadership what do you tell them to know that change is really going to happen?

Secretary McCarthy: So I've met over the last 24 hours with soldiers at every echelon. Private first class all the way to the general officers and told them that we are sending down an independent group of investigators to understand the root causes associated with the rise of felonies, violent acts to better understand why this is happening at this installation. The numbers are high here. They are the highest, the most cases for sexual assault and harassment murders for our entire formation of the US Army. So we are getting an outside look to help us to get to those root causes and understand so that we can make those changes with the point of emphasis being that we are going to put every resource and all of the energy we can to this entire institution behind fixing these problems.

Brendan: A follow-up, in terms of Vanessa's case. How do you change a culture that, as we learn to know, she was allegedly murdered on base and what transpired… how do you change that culture?

Secretary McCarthy: I’m markedly disappointed and saddened by that – one of our own killing a teammate. It takes a shot at the system and it rattles the system of the trust that you have to have in this profession because of just how hard it is, what we do around the world. So, you know, it has hit us hard, and the only thing we can do is come together and have very hard conversations and invest in each other and learn about each other so that we know who our teammates are. I did nine sessions in the last 24 hours, just for hours talking to soldiers from Chicago. This is where I grew up, my family, and just doing more of that. I think for us knowing each other better and improving upon the type of teammates that we are, for the climate that we want and who we need to be. These are very difficult things. At times there are people from… we're the Army, we are a reflection of the country and at times some people infiltrate our ranks. We got to find them. We got to root them out.

Brendan: Thank you.

Steve: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I'm Steve Wilson with the Killeen Daily Herald here in town. I just wanted to clarify a little bit about the Vanessa Gillian case, what we've been talking about here. There has been a bill that has been introduced or is in the process of being prepared to be introduced - I am Vanessa Gillian bill. I was just wondering do you support that bill specifically? Have you been in touch with members of Congress?

Secretary McCarthy: We were in constant communication with the committees of jurisdiction, and as they go through the National Defense authorization Act, which we do every year which lays out the authorities for the Department of Defense. So when they bring up amendments like this to add to the bill we communicate with the committee to best understand the intent of that language and also how to implement so we are in conversations right now.

Steve: Okay. So, you do support at least the intent of the bill?

Secretary McCarthy: We have to really understand the clarity behind the language so that we know that we can implement it and that it will work in our formations.

Steve: Okay. Alright. Thanks very much.

Debbie: Debbie Strauss with NBC News. You announced project inclusion, which looks at things like lack of diversity and sexual harassment. But before this there was SHARPS created, you know, multiple years ago. So why after all these years are we still talking about sexual harassment and the concept of a toxic culture?

Secretary McCarthy: So the SHARP program, the project inclusion encompasses a lot of other things as well. With sexual harassment and sexual assault it has been a challenge for the whole country as well as the US Army, and a lot of that is just the consistency of meeting and having the conversations like the ones we've had over the last 24 hours. They are hard, they're uncomfortable but it's a way for us to continue to learn about each other and realize that an act like that is like committing a fracture side within your own formation, of hurting a teammate. It’s that consistency sustaining these conversation - at times they ebb and flow. We have to have the discipline to do that every day.

Debbie: So, where do you go from here after having these conversations.

Secretary McCarthy: The conversations don't end. We have to keep doing them with the types of consistency, making that investment of time. The independent review will also help us at root causes, specifically to this installation related to that issue. So, we have to continue to learn, but we have to continue to make the investment of our time, to sit across from teammates and have very hard conversations.

Debbie: Would you consider rooting out members of this installation?

Secretary McCarthy: Could you be more specific?

Debbie: If you find that there are systemic issues here after these conversations?

Secretary McCarthy: If the conclusions are such that point to leaders or individuals, in particular, of course, we would take the appropriate accountability.

Debbie: Thank you.

Brandy: Hi sir, how are you today? This is Brandy Cruise, and I'm the news editor for the Fort Hood Sentinel, working in the three corp public affairs office. I was wondering after reading the affidavit released by Bell County it didn't really seem like Vanessa's death had anything to do with sexual harassment. I was wondering did you, has there actually been findings that say that she was, that sexual harassment played a part in this case.

Secretary McCarthy: So the investigations are ongoing to the point that General Efflandt stated. My comment specifically is that it has ignited that issue within our ranks. So to be very clear, that was what my remarks were related to, and that has how many women have come out on social media “I am Vanessa too” so that's what I was referencing. We are investigating to ensure that there was no sexual harassment associated with that and the investigation is ongoing.

Brandy: Okay. Thank you.

(Inaudible) Hi Secretary,(Inaudible) Mendoza with Fox 44. A lot of people are heartbroken, calling for justice and demanding Fort Hood be shut down. How do you respond to those calls?

Secretary McCarthy: So, you know, anger and frustration in a case like Vanessa’s is necessary. I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I'm disappointed. I mean, we are heartbroken, but there are still amazing contributions by men and women from this installation. These leaders that we've met over the last 24 hours are incredibly disappointed too. Vanessa's our teammate, and we let her down. We let her family down. It hurts.  The amazing contributions in people that are on this installation have to continue to endure. We rely on these units to protect our way of life. We're going to do everything we can to prevent these types of things from happening again, to learn from this and to move on. We will do everything we can to protect her legacy by making enduring changes.

(Inaudible) Thank you.

Adam: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Adam (Inaudible). I’m with KXXV 25, we are the ABC affiliate here. There is a lot of other soldiers who have been reported missing and found dead. Is there a change that you're thinking about possibly making when it comes to reporting them AWOL instead of actually investigating the missing when they're found dead later?

Secretary McCarthy: So, this has been a topic of debate at the highest levels of the Army for last several weeks - of just our reporting policies associated with a soldier. Are they AWOL? Are they Des1? What are they? And when do you make these determinations? I think we do have to take a very hard look at that. General McConville, our chief of staff, and I have talked about this at length, of just how we do that and how we continue to look for our soldiers when they end up missing. We're going to take a look at that, and we make a change related to that downstream.

Adam: Okay and just to follow up with your review. If it comes down to that there is leadership at certain levels and there is leadership change how would you change leadership with a base of this size?

Secretary McCarthy: It all depends on what the root causes point to, at what echelon. Was it an individual, was it a systemic problem? So, you know, what we tried to do - these are some world-class investigators that we've got to help us with this - we told them, you know, we gave them broad intent, but we don't want to try to bracket their investigation. We want them to come back with what they learn with fresh eyes in order to help us understand our challenges.

Adam: Thank you, sir.

Chris: Chris Comer from ABC News. I was just wondering if you have any details about how Spc Robinson was able to leave the post and obtain a firearm in the hours before his death?

Secretary McCarthy: Dou have any specifics on that? I mean, this is under investigation,  but do we have….

Major General Efflandt: It is under investigation.

Secretary McCarthy: Okay, we will be able to relay those facts once the investigation concludes.

Chris: Okay, and then similarly, if there was any information about whether he was under a suicide watch or any other kind of formal observation before he absconded from the post?

Secretary McCarthy: You mean medical supervision?

Chris: Well, just I know he was confined to his barracks, from what I understand, but I don't know if there was any additional level of observation to, you know, make sure he was being….

Secretary McCarthy: Issues related to the lead up to his death – we will be able to report that at once the investigations are complete.

Chris: Okay, thank you.

Maj. Gen. Efflandt: For clarity, he was not under arrest at the point that he fled.

Chris: Okay. Thank you.

(Inaudible) Thank you. (Inaudible) from Univision. So, the family one hour ago they say that they didn't receive any call or message from you. Do you have a special message for Guillén family?

Secretary McCarthy: I send written condolences to the families. We send written condolences. I've sent a letter to the family. We usually send them hard copy. With respect to the family, my deepest and sincerest condolences to the Guillén family. We were incredibly disappointed that we let Vanessa down and we let their family down. We vow for the rest of our time in service in our life to prevent these types of acts and to find out how we could prevent them in the future so that it never happens again.

(Inaudible) Actually, the family say that tomorrow is going to be here in front of Fort Hood at 4:00 p.m., every Friday. So are you going to be here or no?

Secretary McCarthy: I was flying back this evening to the Pentagon because I have meetings tomorrow with the Secretary of Defense, but I can look at my schedule to see if we could accommodate that.

Thank you.

Eric: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Eric Frankle, KWTX. As a veteran myself, I know that speaking with officers sometimes is hard. Did you get the desired result from speaking with the POC, as you said earlier, that you wanted or was it they were trying to tell you what you wanted to hear?

Secretary McCarthy: No, I think the conversations were incredibly candid, as they often are with soldiers and talking about issues that we have and how do we address them together, how do we perform better? I always learn whenever I have these opportunities, excuse me….it's a great opportunity anytime I get out of the Pentagon and get down to units and have these types of discussions.

Eric: All right. Thank you.

Joel: Hello, sir. Joel Lopez at 25 News, the ABC affiliate here. A lot of soldiers families feel retaliation, especially during times like these. How is it you've been able to, the people you've communicated with on come on base, on post, how do you know that they're actually giving you the genuine answer and not just maybe people who are giving you kind of what you want to know. How are you reaching out to the people who do fear retaliation and getting their genuine concern?

Secretary McCarthy: So, you know, I meet with them, and I'll be in there by myself or I'll have somebody from my staff that's like a requisite grade. So that's how I kind of shape or frame the meetings. We make sure that they understand none of these things will be attributed to them directly by name, and I just talked to them about who I am, where I grew up, and I try to emphasize to them I'm a person, a human being just like you. And if you don't tell me about the challenges you face there's no way to fix them, there’s no way to address them to try to make them better. So I just try to make them feel comfortable in the discussion. It's not formal. We just kind of sit around a table and have a conversation. Usually try to do it over a meal because people relax a little bit and they'll open themselves up, try to trust each other. We don't want the fear of retaliation. It's horrible. We don't want that. But in order to do that you just have to be willing to invest the time, hours and hours of your day to do that.

Joel: How are you finding these people? Do you have a list that you kind of go down or are you on your own walking around?

Secretary McCarthy: So my staff will tell them kind of the grades that we are looking for, the skill sets, try to go between various units. We just try to be as random as we can in the way we find the men and women to have these discussions because we don't want some prepared kind of event. We just want to have ‘What's on your mind.’

Joel: Thank you.

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, we have time for one more question. Are there any more questions?

Rocky: Hi, I'm Rocky Bridges with KCM News. We'd like to know if the President has spoken with you after he has spoken with the family?

Secretary McCarthy: No, I got feedback from the Secretary of Defense, my boss, Dr. Mark Esper, directly related to the discussion. He had offered his condolences, and he vowed to put every resource at his disposal to help address these types of challenges - whether that's law enforcement or within the Department of Defense, and I believe he offered even to pay for the funeral himself. He had about a 15-minute discussion with the Guillén family.

Rocky: Thank you, sir.

Moderator: Thank you for coming today.