After Fort Hood, the U.S. Army Will Succeed or Fail on Trust
“The murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems.” So began Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy’s public statement on Dec. 8 as he, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston addressed the Report of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee. While senior Army leaders, including McCarthy, had previously talked about how Guillen’s murder affected them personally and professionally, the report identified failings far deeper than many had foreseen.
I’m an old soldier, one who had the privilege of serving for nearly 38 years, and in some fairly senior positions. A few years ago, I had the honor of chairing the congressionally directed National Commission on the Future of the Army, and I am now the president of the Association of the United States Army, a nonprofit organization that supports soldiers, their families, Army civilians, veterans, retirees, and the businesses that support the Army.
I love the Army, and I think I know it pretty well. Like every soldier I know, past and present, I was disappointed, dismayed, and angry at the failings revealed by the committee. But there was another emotion as well: regret.
As I listened to senior Army leaders and the five members of the committee, then read, reread, and studied the report, I realized that many of the identified failures were failures that I made when I was in uniform. To put it bluntly, as a senior commander, I should have placed increased command-level attention and emphasis on sexual assault prevention and response, more proactively ensured that leaders at every level exercised their rightful responsibilities in instilling the Army’s values, and taken more steps to properly staff and resource sexual harassment/assault response and prevention offices, legal staffs, and investigative staffs. The result, of which I am quite certain, is that soldiers for whom I was responsible did not always receive the protections they deserved, and those who violated the Army’s values, abused their positions, and likely committed crimes against their fellow soldiers were not held fully to account. I suspect that I am not alone in feeling this way.
So, now what? While the Fort Hood report is specific to that installation and addresses a certain timeframe, the findings and recommendations speak to Army-wide problems and have far wider applications. As he mentioned in the initial rollout of the report, McConville has shouldered responsibility for this and charged leaders across the Army to accept the duty to fix the problems identified by the committee. Grinston has similarly made it clear to NCO leaders that they have critical roles in moving the Army forward quickly in addressing many of the identified fundamental leadership failures. The Army also established the People First Task Force, to be led by senior military and civilian officials and supported by a highly experienced, diverse team from both within and outside of the Army. These are necessary first steps to acknowledge and accept that these are deep and underlying problems that require more than superficial actions to remedy.
“But wait,” you say. “We’ve heard this before.” That’s true. I’m one of those who said, “We’ve got this.” But we didn’t. I didn’t. At least not to the extent that our soldiers deserve.
We had good intentions, to be sure. But intentions compete with and too often lose out to operational requirements, changes in leadership, and resource constraints. To me, this time, it feels different. Time will tell, but based on conversations with the secretary, chief, and sergeant major of the Army, among others, I can feel the steel behind their convictions. McCarthy is a calm, composed guy. When he talks about this issue, you can see fire in his eyes, and you can sense the seriousness with which he addresses these cultural issues within his Army. McConville’s long training as a combat aviator has prepared him to retain composure under fire. There’s nothing calm about the chief’s views about the urgency with which his Army should address these issues. Grinston is a soldier’s soldier who has been there and done that. He knows what needs to be done and is laser-focused on the NCO’s role in rebuilding trust across the Army. For all three, you sense the pain they feel that this happens in their Army.
To me, trust is the key in all of this. It was discouraging to discover how little trust many soldiers have in their leaders. For an army, a profession built on the bedrock of trust, that’s deeply concerning. Restoring that trust should be the top job of Army leaders at every level. This is easy to say, but not so easy to do.
The report identifies several recommendations that, if applied, will contribute to fostering trust. But while there are undeniably organizational and structural things that need to change, trust in the Army is built one soldier at a time.
It begins when a young woman speaks to an Army recruiter for the first time. Trust builds further when a drill sergeant takes that little bit of extra time to show a new soldier how to properly accomplish a task to standard. Trust builds when first line leaders, often corporals or sergeants, actually listen when a new soldier joins their unit and demonstrate by their actions that they genuinely care. Trust starts when a leader says, “I believe you,” in response to a soldier’s report of sexual harassment or assault.
There is another level of trust that is foundational to the role of our Army — the trust between the Army and the nation it serves. Women and men seek to join America’s Army because they trust that they will be well led, well trained, and treated with dignity and respect. Parents support their children serving in the Army because they, too, trust that Army leaders will be honorable, capable, and caring. Governors trust that when they call upon their Army National Guard in times of crisis, their soldiers and leaders will answer that call to duty with courage, conviction, and competence. When the nation sends its Army into often dangerous missions, it does so trusting that Army leaders will do what is right. The trust of the nation in its Army means everything.
As a young officer, I served in the 22nd Infantry Regiment, whose motto is “Deeds, Not Words.” Pretty good guidance. Words from the secretary and chief are important, to be sure. More important will be the policies they change, and the priority and resources they assign to this challenge. Most important will be to show through their actions that leaders at every level will be held accountable.
Some have suggested that the leadership failings at Fort Hood are directly attributable to the Army’s intense focus on readiness. These critics somehow believe that readiness and caring for soldiers are two separate requirements. They are not. The unbreakable bond between the Army and the nation is that, when called, no matter the mission, no matter the timing, no matter the location, the Army will be ready to respond decisively. That means having the right people, equipment, and training. People first, as McConville says. It isn’t a matter of either/or — the Army can and should do both. Every day, in every unit, in every location.
My old soldier sense is that this is a watershed moment for the Army I love. I think it is also a last, best chance for the Army to demonstrate that it can police itself, learn from serious mistakes, and right itself as the profession of arms demands. Should Army leaders at all levels fail to do this, outsiders will inevitably impose changes that may well address some of the specific issues raised in the Fort Hood report, but also weaken the bonds of trust that are essential in our society. By failing to act now, the Army will have failed in its obligation to the nation. The Army leaders I know understand this, and they have the character and commitment to rebuild trust across the force and build the Army America needs. The time is now.
Carter Ham is a retired Army four-star general whose service began as an enlisted infantryman then culminated after nearly 38 years of service as commander, United States Africa Command. He retired in 2013, chaired the congressionally directed National Commission on the Future of the Army, and now serves as president & chief executive officer of the Association of the United States Army.
Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth Burkhart