This article is part of Short Changed, a series looking at the noncombat deaths of women going back to 9/11.
A couple of months after Spc. Vanessa Guillén disappeared on April 22, 2020, former Army Pfc. Krysta Alaniz protested the seeming lack of action on the military’s part. With her chocolate-brown eyes, sleek dark hair, and heart-shaped face, Alaniz could have passed for Guillén’s sister, and she seemed to have felt that connection as she held a sign at the protest.
“Hoy es un mes un mes sin ti,” her sign read.
Today is a month without you—without hearing from you, without answers.
“I’m out here because everything going on here is true,” Alaniz told the Austin-American Statesman. “Fort Hood is a terrible place. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is a big thing at Fort Hood, and there is never any justice.”
Alaniz, an Army veteran who also went by “Krysta Martinez,” told the paper she had been harassed while stationed at Fort Hood.
Her sister, Kathryn Martinez, who hadn’t served in the military, stood next to Krysta, holding a sign of her own.
Vanessa Guillén’s body was found June 30, 2020. She had been murdered by someone in her unit. Three days before she was discovered, and as Fort Hood roiled in the aftermath of her disappearance, Alaniz, who was no longer in the military, died in a middle-of-the-night car accident.
Kathryn Martinez, distraught, sought out Alaniz’s former brigade commander. Alaniz had been sexually harassed and raped by someone within the unit, Martinez told the commander, and then pushed out of the military without proper medical treatment as a cover-up.
“The culture of the Army must change, and we cannot allow predators like [the officer] to remain in the ranks,” the investigating officer wrote.
None of Martinez’s allegations turned out to be true and there was no sign the crash had been anything more than an accident. But an investigation showed Alaniz had been harassed by another soldier, and she had reported being raped by a civilian. Her immediate leadership had known about none of it.
Six months after the deaths of Guillén and Alaniz, just as Fort Hood released a report noting all the problems on base, Alaniz’s former commander, Lt. Col. Phillip Neal, hosted a series of meetings with his soldiers at the 502nd Dental Company Area Support. He split them into groups of men and women. Members of both groups told stories of egregious sexual harassment. As his soldiers continued to talk, Neal and his leadership team realized the abuse they referred to all came from the same soldier, Lt. Col. Keith Wilson, who an investigator at Fort Drum, New York, had previously stated should never be allowed to lead troops again.
“The culture of the Army must change, and we cannot allow predators like [the officer] to remain in the ranks,” the investigating officer wrote in a redacted investigation given to The War Horse.
Instead, the soldier was sent from Fort Drum to Fort Hood, Texas—now Fort Cavazos.
“There is certainly more to this story,” Wilson told The War Horse after referring a reporter to his military and civilian lawyers. They had not responded to queries in time for publication.
During an investigation into the circumstances around Alaniz’s departure from the Army, Neal watched as his unit fell apart—he believes in retaliation for reporting the lieutenant colonel for harassment. By the end of it, a first sergeant headed to the Sergeants Major Academy lost his slot for following military procedures. A lieutenant accepted into the Aeromedical Evacuation Pilot program would initially be flagged—prohibited from attending schools or being promoted—because he didn’t correct a first sergeant for a seemingly innocuous joke. And Neal himself was flagged after answering a question incorrectly during a Congressional inquiry—and then immediately correcting himself.
“None of the accusations were substantiated, but they still dug around to find other things to punish us over so it could look like the accusations were substantiated,” Neal says.
Fort Hood free-fell as it tried to explain Vanessa Guillén’s well-publicized disappearance and murder. On the day she went missing, Guillén left her arms room—the storage area where units keep their weapons—and went to the arms room of Spc. Aaron Robinson for work-related reasons. Then she disappeared. Her family said she had filed a sexual harassment complaint, sparking the “I am Vanessa Guillén” movement on social media where service members spoke up about their own experiences, and celebrities and politicians pressured the Army about its search efforts.
After Robinson was named as a suspect, he fatally shot himself with a pistol. But his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, filled in the details: Robinson hit Guillén in the head with a hammer repeatedly, she told prosecutors, and then Aguilar helped Robinson try to dismember Guillén’s body. She pleaded guilty in November 2022 to charges of accessory to murder and three counts of making a false statement.
By the time Alaniz died, Fort Hood had moved to retreat mode, with rumors leading the front and careers hanging in the balance of investigations. But Guillén’s death also sparked the first steps toward surrender, to acknowledgment that, just as in World War II and the Vietnam War, the Army could not treat some of its soldiers as unworthy of safe living conditions. Some leaders began to question their own roles in the loss of military women.
It also brought pressure for military leadership to avoid bad headlines, or to overreact, as Neal says happened in his case.
“No matter what the facts of this case were?” Jennifer Neal, Phillip Neal’s wife, says. “They were gonna go after these guys. They were getting in trouble. They were going to find something because somebody’s gonna pay because they didn’t do right by Vanessa Guillén.”
But also because of Vanessa Guillén, beginning at the end of this year, commanders will no longer be able to decide which cases merit follow-up, which friends can be protected from punishment, or who faces reprisal.
The cases of both Alaniz and Wilson exemplify why advocates and Congress members have, for years, called for sexual assault cases to be pulled from the commander’s oversight: Alaniz did not get the help she needed after she said she was raped because a convoluted system meant to protect her instead blinded those who could ensure she had the time she needed to get care. And an officer previously found to have harassed women soldiers was instead shipped, by a friendly commander, to another base, where new charges against him would once again be substantiated.
Because of Guillén’s death, specialized, independent military prosecutors who fall outside of base command will handle sexual assault cases beginning at the end of 2023. Their decisions will also be independent of the chain of command—meaning a general can’t say later that a rapist was a great soldier or a great Marine and deserves a lesser sentence. Those who report assault will be protected from reprisal. A new law, signed by President Joe Biden in July, also creates a uniform standard for determining which cases go to court-martial—the military’s justice system—because the military handles the majority of its sexual misconduct cases through nonjudicial punishment. Nonjudicial punishment allows commanders to punish service members by withholding a portion of their pay or restricting them to the barracks, rather than face criminal adjudication.
Sexual assault response coordinators and victims’ advocates will also no longer report to the chain of command, and, beginning Jan. 1, 2025, independent prosecutors will be assigned sexual harassment cases.
But the changes will come too late for Alaniz, Neal, and his leadership team.
‘And That Was When I Got Suspended’
In November 2020, a few months after Guillén was murdered and after Alaniz died—and right around when the report from the Fort Hood Independent Committee stated that the base sexual harassment program had “failed” and that “no commanding general or subordinate echelon commander chose to intervene proactively and mitigate known risks of high crime, sexual assault, and sexual harassment”—Neal began to hear rumors about Wilson, a fellow dentist, who had surrounded himself with women soldiers: his driver. His assistant. Anyone he pulled duty with. Wilson’s name was confirmed by sources in this story, an accidental appearance in a redacted report about his case, and by Army public affairs.
Neal had already received word that Wilson had harassed a woman, as well as her husband, when Wilson ran into them at a Walmart near Fort Hood. The woman had previously filed a complaint against Wilson for intimidation while at Fort Drum. Neal asked Wilson about it.
“He said he’d never been to that Walmart or even that town,” Neal says.
Neal had counseled Wilson on Nov. 3, following the Walmart incident, and then given him a no-contact order.
After he began to hear rumors, Neal called Wilson’s most recent commander, who advocated for Wilson and said he was a good guy, Neal says.
“He felt like [Wilson]’d gotten a raw deal,” Neal says. “And that he was innocent and been railroaded, and all of these things, and he really basically just unloaded him onto me.”
In reality, Wilson had been suspended and wasn’t allowed to treat patients at Fort Drum. In December 2016, Wilson was punished for “failing to treat his subordinates with dignity and respect and by making inappropriate comments both to and about females in his charge.” He made the comments in front of junior officers, which set a bad example, an investigator wrote, and did not support Army sexual harassment policy.
“All investigations to date, as well as other information that has come forward, all point to the same conclusion: that [Wilson] should not be given any opportunity for future leadership positions,” Wilson’s commander at the time of the investigation said.
Instead, Wilson went to Fort Hood. On Nov. 23, Neal counseled Wilson again about rumors that he chose only women to assist him in his tasks.
Then on Dec. 8, Neal and his new acting first sergeant scheduled time for mandatory training on sexism, sexual assault, and extremism, which happened to be the day the Fort Hood Independent Review Commission findings came out. Neal decided to conduct “sensing sessions”—a gathering of soldiers to talk about the culture of the unit—separating the men from the women in the hopes that people would speak freely.
Neal’s team asked the soldiers how they were doing. They trusted him—an investigation found that his soldiers thought he was someone they could go to.
The women told the team “they don’t like making complaints about people saying or doing inappropriate things because they don’t want to be judged as being overly sensitive—they just want to work and they’re not looking for conflict,” Neal says. He told them he and the others in the unit would have their backs.
The men said they worried about working with women because the women might file a false complaint against them and it could hurt their careers, Neal says.
“And so I told the guys, ‘That’s not a real fear. You have to make the decisions that you have to make, be the leader you’re supposed to be, or leave the Army,’” Neal says. “You can’t be afraid of an investigation. It’s a fair system.”
He would later wonder about the truth of that statement and the impression it left on his soldiers.
As he talked with the two groups, stories of sexual harassment within the past 60 days in his unit kept coming up. Finally, several stories in, Neal recalls asking, “‘Is this about Lt. Col. Wilson?’ All of them said, ‘Yes.’”
Wilson talked about his sex life, they told him, according to a later investigation. He referred to his soldiers as “motherfuckers.” He liked to touch women soldiers. They did not feel comfortable with him.
“I told them he would be investigated and held accountable,” Neal says. “And if he was guilty of what they were saying, then they would never see him around the unit again.”
Wilson denied the charges to investigators, saying he had not made any statements that could be construed as sexually explicit, that all of the soldiers’ accusations were untrue, and that his words had been taken out of context.
Neal did exactly the right thing, Neal’s acting first sergeant, Master Sgt. Neal Sidonio, says. Sidonio was the senior enlisted soldier for troops under Neal’s command.
“It was not protocol at all,” Ragin says. “It was just my instinct.
“If a soldier comes to me, says someone is sexually harassing them—no holds barred, I go hard in the paint when it comes to EO, when it comes to SHARP, bullying, harassment,” Sidonio says, referring to the military’s Equal Employment Opportunity and sexual harassment prevention programs. “I am an abrasive person. But I am firm, fair, and consistent across everybody.”
It’s important, he says—especially in light of the Guillén case.
“That’s where leaders are screwing themselves up over and over and over and over again—by not opening an investigation,” he says.
The soldiers seemed to think so, too.
“The soldiers were impressed with [Lt. Col.] Neal’s leadership and his respect towards the females who came forward,” an investigator later wrote. “A couple soldiers also mentioned that the current 502nd DCAS command team cares for soldiers more than any command team they have served with.”
Neal immediately asked Wilson not to come back to the unit and began an investigation. Within 24 hours, he notified the post commander, a three-star general. The three-star then pushed it back down the chain, to Brig. Gen. Ronald R. Ragin, the commander of the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
“And that was the day that I was suspended,” Neal says.
‘We Were Both Devastated’
Toward the end of June 2020, a few months after Krysta Alaniz had left the Army, someone called Sidonio to tell him that she had died in a car accident. Police reported that she crashed her Dodge Challenger into an overpass pillar after she missed a turn just before one on Saturday morning, June 27, 2020. The Houston medical examiner’s office confirmed Alaniz’s death for The War Horse.
She “failed to drive in a single lane and may have been going at an unsafe speed while under the influence of alcohol,” a Texas Department of Transportation report states.
Alaniz had—several times—failed the sit-up portion of her fitness test. Soldiers are required to maintain minimum fitness levels to remain in the military. She also had a profile—or doctor’s orders—that would allow her to walk, rather than run, part of the fitness test. Her doctor, Howard Richman, told her she had a rare bone deformity that causes tendon pain, according to Richman’s sworn statement to investigators about why Alaniz had a profile.
It hurt when she ran or carried heavy loads—like a rucksack on a road march. Richman told her she could face a medical evaluation board, which would likely end her military career with no benefits because her injury was from a condition that existed before she joined the Army, or she could have the surgery, which was complicated and might not end her pain—but could potentially allow her to continue her military career.
Neal remembers treating Alaniz with dignity and respect, he says, as well as working at not making her feel like less of a person for leaving the military. He says they talked about how no one in the civilian world would ever make her carry a 50-pound pack “and run around with it.”
“You can do amazing things, and your foot and your back and all that aren’t going to be issues,” he says he remembers telling her. “And she was a smart troop.”
Alaniz told him she wanted to be a dental assistant or hygienist, Neal says. But Neal wanted to make sure she had the opportunity to be promoted, either before she got out or before she had the surgery, if she decided to, he says. For that to happen, she needed to pass the sit-up portion of her test, which wasn’t affected by the profile she had for her foot.
Instead, in December 2019, she again failed the sit-up portion of her test and was discharged from the military.
On Dec. 23, Alaniz called her doctor’s office and said she was being chaptered out of the military for failing her test. Alaniz should have been told she had the option to have the surgery if she stayed near the base for at least 90 days, Neal says. But somehow, she didn’t know it, didn’t understand it, or didn’t want it, he says.
“In talking to her, I don’t think she wanted the surgery,” he says. The surgeon told her there was a 30% chance surgery could make it worse, 30% it would get better, and 30% it would stay the same, he remembers her telling him. She figured she just wouldn’t do the things that made it hurt, like running or carrying heavy packs, he says she told him.
In a text message to a sergeant in the unit, Alaniz wrote, “They already told [another soldier] that her chapter is official so I’m hoping mine is too.”
Soon after, she wrote that she was “doing good!” and, “I should be getting out next month!” When the sergeant asked her how she felt about it, she wrote, “Excited lol I’m done with this shit. Too stressful.”
Neal and Sidonio thought that was the end of it.
And then they received the call about her death.
“We were both just devastated,” Lt. Col. Neal says.
Sidonio contacted public affairs to find out how to best handle the situation since Alaniz was no longer in the Army, he says.
“It did impact a lot of people,” Lt. Col. Neal says. He began to talk to each of Alaniz’s friends one-on-one to see how they were doing and to suggest behavioral health help, if they needed it.
Sidonio and Neal began to organize a memorial service for Alaniz at the unit.
“She died in June,” Lt. Col. Neal says. “And then it was in July that her sister came and said that she had been mistreated at the unit.”
Alaniz’s sister, Kathryn Martinez, declined to talk to The War Horse about the accusations, saying that her mother didn’t want the story reported. But the accusations Martinez made would end careers and affect other families.
Martinez asked to see the battalion commander, then told him the unit mistreated her sister by pushing her out of the military without surgery.
“I believe that if PFC Alaniz [had received medical treatment], she would still be in the Army and still be alive today,” Martinez later wrote in a statement to investigators on Sept. 17, 2020. “I also believe her chain of command caught wind of her making a [sexual harassment] complaint, they quickly expedited her out of the Army. I confronted the Commander about this the last week of July, requesting her medical records and claiming that First Sergeant had sexually harassed PFC Alaniz.”
The accusations, coming just after Guillén had been murdered, were explosive. And that Alaniz and her sister had protested after Guillén’s disappearance made Martinez’s allegations all the more horrifying.
Her charges may have played directly into the hands of a leader who wanted to show he was doing everything he could to prevent another Guillén, Lt. Col. Neal says.
“She hasn’t gotten justice, either,” Jennifer Neal says, adding that Martinez was grieving for her sister and being fed rumors by other soldiers, including one Alaniz had accused of bullying her, according to the investigation. “She just wants the truth of what happened to her sister.”
Sidonio says he put himself in Martinez’s shoes—those of someone dealing with loss who felt there had been a betrayal.
“My brother was killed in a car accident,” Sidonio says. “My daughter was sexually assaulted. My niece was sexually assaulted. I recently wrote a letter to the parole board to stop the person from getting parole. So it was very easy to sympathize with her.
“But that went away very quickly.”
‘You Should Get Checked, Too’
In September 2019, unknown to Neal and Sidonio, Alaniz went to South Padre for a quick beach vacation—quick enough that she hadn’t asked for a required weekend pass.
Her break soon became a disaster.
Her roommate met her at the emergency room at Darnall Army Medical Center on Nov. 4, 2019, after Alaniz returned from South Padre Island.
She had been “blackout drunk,” she told the doctors, and a civilian man from her hometown raped her at a party at her best friend’s house. “You want round 2?” he asked later, in a text. She told the doctors the man admitted to the assault in a text message. She worried that she would become pregnant, that she would catch something. They gave her preventive medications, and an advocate offered comfort.
On Dec. 5, 2019, she returned to the hospital. She told them life—at work, at home—was “very difficult.” She cried, randomly. She had no energy. She felt anxious. But she said she loved doing her makeup, cooking, and spending time with her nieces and nephews. She would try to lean on these activities to decrease her stress. She would go on leave over Christmas, she would have her surgery Jan. 13, and she would then take a month to recover.
That day, Alaniz’s doctor diagnosed her with “adjustment disorder with anxiety and other reactions to severe stress,” and the trauma from her attack may have caused depression and a feeling that everyone was against her, investigators later found.
Alaniz had filed a restricted report Nov. 4, when she initially went to the hospital, according to the investigation, which meant her command would not learn about the rape.
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“Filing a restricted report allows the victim to confidentially disclose the details of his or her sexual assault to specified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling, without triggering the official investigative process or notifying their command,” Army spokesperson Matt Leonard told The War Horse by email.
Alaniz may have filed a restricted report because she feared getting in trouble for underage drinking or for not obtaining a weekend pass to go to South Padre Island, Neal says, adding that she didn’t know her command well enough to be sure they wouldn’t have punished her in connection with reporting assault.
On Dec. 17, 2019, Alaniz took her final fitness test. She didn’t bring her profile, as she had been asked to do, though it wouldn’t have affected the sit-ups. And she didn’t bring the discharge paperwork she’d been asked to bring to prove she had again been in the emergency room of the hospital the previous evening.
She again failed the sit-ups.
Afterward, Sidonio asked First Lt. Joshua Schaffrin to take Alaniz to the clinic to see if there was anything to Alaniz’s claim that she couldn’t take the test because she had been in the hospital. Schaffrin, who never fell out of runs, had stopped while pacing a soldier the day before after breathing in cold air.
“You should get checked out, too,” Sidonio told Schaffrin, teasing him, he says, about falling out of the run the day before.
But Alaniz thought Sidonio was making fun of her, according to the investigation.
Maj. Brandy Gardner, a psychologist at Fort Hood who specializes in trauma, didn’t find Alaniz’s response to the statement—as well as not preparing properly for her fitness test, going to her therapy appointments, or remembering documents—unusual after what Alaniz told doctors she had been through.
“Individuals dealing with trauma may react more defensively and engage in cognitive distortions of ‘jumping to conclusions’ if they have not had an opportunity to process that trauma,” Gardner said in a sworn statement. “Trauma can affect how a person feels and thinks about themselves and the world, which may also affect their actions and behavior.”
Alaniz told her doctor she had some mood swings and couldn’t sleep, likely affecting her ability to interpret the actions of others around her, Gardner wrote. Alaniz also told her chain of command she had attended several mental and physical health appointments when, in fact, she had not. Withdrawing from social support or avoiding work made Gardner’s list of trauma symptoms.
“This may provide a better understanding of this [service member] not presenting for her counseling appointments, failing to seek renewal of any physical profiles, or submit paperwork to unit leadership that is recommended by her provider,” she wrote. “Patients who experience trauma, specifically sexual assault, are prone to many distressing symptoms as a result.”
Because Sidonio and Neal didn’t know about the assault, they didn’t encourage Alaniz to go to counseling for what may have been symptoms of sexual trauma, or check to see if she’d made it to her appointments. They didn’t give her time to recover—to deal with the potential anxiety, nightmares, and inability to believe anything mattered but the crisis in her life.
If he had known, Lt. Col. Neal says he would have made sure Alaniz stayed in the Army long enough to get what she needed.
“I had to initiate it,” Neal says of Alaniz’s discharge for the failed fitness test, because of Army regulations. But, “If there was some type of way that either of us thought that she had been wronged, then we would have been willing to assume risk and step up for her—but there was nothing. There’s nothing that we knew about.”
If they’d known, Sidonio says Alaniz probably would have been in therapy rather than at the physical fitness test.
But Neal and Sidonio didn’t get a chance to help, and with that absence of information, all they could do, they say, is follow the regulation.
Alaniz thought Schaffrin and Sidonio must have known about the rape, but “her medical issues were completely confidential” because of the restricted report, Neal says. And the, “You should get checked out, too,” comment seemed, to Schaffrin, purely about him falling out of the run.
“I, frankly, was not aware that Pfc. Alaniz interpreted the comment to be directed towards her in any way,” Schaffrin later said, “and I deeply regret not being there for her when she needed me most.”
‘He Should Not Be Given Any Opportunity to Lead’
Before the new law taking sexual assault investigations outside the chain of command, the Army also changed its rules so that investigators can’t work in and investigate the same units. But Neal sent his concerns about Lt. Col. Wilson, the officer accused of harassing Neal’s soldiers, up the chain before the new rule came into place. The change comes in part because of the threat of undue command influence—a commander’s ability to say, “You’re going to investigate this, and your investigation will have the outcome I want, rather than what the facts of the case show.”
But in the summer of 2020, commanders could appoint investigators to look into cases involving their friends. Brig. Gen. Ragin, the officer to whom Neal had reported Wilson’s offensive behavior, and Wilson had been stationed at Fort Drum at the same time, and they lived in the same neighborhood. Wilson told Neal that he and Ragin used to smoke cigars together, Neal says. After Neal ordered Wilson to stay away from his troops, Wilson moved over to the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command—with Ragin.
Still, the investigation into Wilson’s bad behavior came back as substantiated, Neal says.
“I find it disappointing that [redacted] has been allowed to remain in the U.S. Army and continue to prey upon and harass soldiers and [Department of the Army] civilians,” a Fort Hood investigator wrote.
Wilson, who was two years out from retirement and stood accused of sexual harassment by at least a dozen of Neal’s soldiers, was flagged and allowed to stay at Fort Hood, Neal says.
“The circumstances surrounding [Lt. Col.] Neal and [Master Sgt. Noah] Sidonio’s allegations, including alleged reprisal, are the subject of an ongoing investigation about which the Army is unable to further comment,” Army spokesperson Leonard told The War Horse by email, in response to questions about the reprisal allegations, as well as whether Wilson still served at Fort Hood after being accused of sexual harassment there and at Fort Drum. “The Army has investigated the allegations involving [Lt. Col.] Wilson and the command is taking appropriate action regarding those allegations.”
Army officials have confirmed that Wilson remains in the Army, but have not responded to inquiries about about potential retaliation against Neal and Sidonio, about whether the case has been reviewed further up the chain of command in light of several appeals, or about how the facts in the investigation into the case appear to go against the findings of the investigator.
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When asked why a soldier would report an assault after seeing the repercussions of this case, Army spokesperson Leonard says: “All unrestricted reports of sexual assault, and formal complaints of sexual harassment are thoroughly investigated so offenders can be held appropriately accountable. Our Soldiers join the Army to serve their country and carry out their mission while working side by side. Any Soldier who violates the policies and procedures set forth to protect them and their fellow Soldiers will be held appropriately accountable for their actions or inactions. Army leaders have made it clear that sexual harassment and sexual assault have no gender, and this conduct has no place in the Army.”
But Neal’s soldiers had a different take.
“It took me by surprise that [Lt. Col.] Neal got suspended for doing right by his soldiers and taking care of the situation as soon as it was known to him,” one soldier told investigators.
This witness said it took courage for the women to come forward, and that they were disappointed in the system.
“We want our commander back.”
‘It Just Didn’t Seem as if It Had Any Merit’
After Martinez came to the unit, Neal called in Alaniz’s best friends to find out what they knew, and that’s when he learned she had been sexually assaulted, he says. One of the soldiers also told him they had informed Martinez about the rape.
Soon after, Neal says he talked to his soldiers about being open about harassment and assault.
“I said, ‘I’m very disappointed that that happened, and I do not want to see that ever happen again—if any of us was hurt, we’re the ones that are supposed to help.’”
In August, Neal started an investigation into what had happened to Alaniz.
But he believed Martinez had been presented with incorrect information from people who didn’t know the details of Alaniz’s sexual assault and sexual harassment.
“She wasn’t saying that Alaniz had said any of these things,” Neal says. “These were friends of Alaniz. The way they were describing where it happened, when it happened—it just didn’t seem as if it had any merit.”
When nothing came of his investigation into the mistreatment charges based on Alaniz’s administrative discharge with a preexisting condition, Martinez changed her accusation, Neal says.
She told Brig. Gen. Ragin, to whom Neal had reported Wilson’s bad behavior, that someone had sexually assaulted her sister, Sidonio says. That meant CID would take over the investigation. Sidonio was already on his way out of the unit after volunteering for reassignment to the Fort Hood hospital because he thought he might be getting a medical slot at the Sergeants Major Academy and wanted to prepare for it. Only 13 people out of 1,000 who applied would get in, and it would be a big step up in his career.
Then he learned that CID wanted to talk to him, he says.
It quickly became clear who Martinez had accused.
“PFC Alaniz was sexually assaulted by 1SG Noah F. Sidonio,” a witness told a special agent, the CID investigation into the case states. Sidonio was accused of raping Alaniz on Nov. 3, 2019—the day she had been raped at South Padre Island.
Sidonio says he had not previously heard anything from Alaniz’s family “other than wild Instagram and Facebook posts,” which he says he began to see about a month or two after Alaniz died in June.
“PFC Krysta Aliah Alaniz reported her abuser and they didn’t document it!” said one post, from “Kat Bea,” or Kathryn Martinez. “They tried to sweep it under the rug.”
“The Army killed my sister,” another post says.
Alaniz did tell her friends about a first sergeant who harassed her, Sidonio says, and the investigation confirms that. She said his name ended in “O,” that he was Hispanic, and that he was there when Alaniz first arrived—or 17 months before Sidonio, who is not Hispanic, got to Fort Hood.
The accusation against Sidonio didn’t go far: “Outcry witnesses were interviewed and all stated [Pfc.] Alaniz never disclosed any information about a sexual assault involving [Master Sgt.] Sidonio,” the CID report, issued Dec. 30, 2020, states.
“And then Col. Miller started showing up asking her questions,” Sidonio says.
‘I Know They’re Going to Fail My Sister One More Time’
Martinez reached out to former Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, to reiterate her complaints. Speier’s office sent a request for information to the Army in October 2020.
“Did Pfc. Alaniz’s doctors recommend surgery?” was one of 15 questions, including inquiries about the South Padre Island assault, whether Alaniz had reported sexual harassment, and whether she had reported maltreatment, in addition to information about her congenital foot condition. The 1st Medical Brigade’s executive officer no longer had access to Alaniz’s medical records, so she reached out to Neal at 7:15 p.m., Oct. 15, 2020.
“I said no, because I didn’t remember it,” Neal says. It had been 10 months since Alaniz had failed her fitness test.
Neal’s commander at the 1st Medical Brigade, Col. Robert F. Howe, wrote that he requested an extension, which was denied. So they submitted their response without the records. A couple of days after Neal gave the wrong answer, he says he received Alaniz’s medical records and immediately sent a correction.
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On Nov. 10, 2020, Brig. Gen. Ragin, Howe’s boss, asked Col. Genera Miller, chief nursing officer for the 1st Medical Brigade, to investigate Neal’s answers and look into Alaniz’s medical treatment and discharge.
“The initial investigation revealed no credible evidence of mistreatment, nor any denial of medical care or documented foot injury,” Howe wrote.
Neal figured he was clear—but, as in Sidonio’s case, the inquiry into Neal’s mistaken answer was not over yet.
After CID said Sidonio was clear of sexually assaulting Alaniz, Martinez took her complaint to Ragin, who escalated it. Neal says it’s rare for a civilian to come into a unit and have so much influence over an investigation.
“If it was ever going to be taken seriously, this would be the time for it to be taken seriously because the national media were reporting on this daily, and everyone’s fear, I suppose, was that they were going to get drawn into something like that,” Neal says.
As Martinez met with Col. Roger Giraud, headquarters commander of the 1st Medical Brigade, and Gen. Ragin—Neal’s bosses—she posted recordings she secretly made of both leaders making promises before any investigation took place. She posted them on Facebook, then later removed them—but not before Jennifer Neal downloaded them.
“I know they’re going to fail my sister one more time,” Martinez wrote in a post to which she attached the recordings. “But that doesn’t mean this fight is anywhere near over.”
Ragin did not respond to an email asking about the recordings.
“Obviously, they don’t have your skill set,” a man Martinez identitfies as Ragin tells Martinez, then laughs, in one recording.
“Like I said, if y’all are hiring investigators, let me know,” Martinez says. “Because, apparently, I’m better at it than them. And they’re the best army in the world and the best investigative team in the world. I think I’m a little bit better.”
Martinez also tells a man she identified as Giraud that she sees failures in the investigation.
“So I’m trying to make that right,” Giraud says, in a bit Martinez recorded. “There’s a lot of wrong that has been done, and unfortunately it has resulted in your sister and her not being here.”
In Jennifer Neal’s mind, her husband didn’t stand a chance, and in a letter requesting redress to Army officials, the bias revealed, she says, in the recordings, which she verified as being of Ragin and Giraud, influenced the outcome of Lt. Col. Neal’s case.
“These violate due process and show blatant bias and predetermined outcome during investigation,” she tells The War Horse. “After siding with Martinez, there was no going back.”
‘That’s When Colonel Neal Was Removed’
On Dec. 11, 2020, Ragin sent a memo to Lt. Col. Neal stating that Neal had been suspended from his duties at 502nd Dental Company Area Support at Fort Hood, pending an investigation.
In Neal’s mind, just as he showed his soldiers he cared and that he wasn’t going to stand for sexual harassment or assault, he was given a no-contact order—and his soldiers were given no explanation.
Neal opened up an investigation on Wilson, Sidonio says. “And that was the final straw, according to Gen. Ragin, that there’s something wrong with this unit—that a commander opened up an investigation to find out if sexual harassment is happening, there was something wrong, and that’s when Col. Neal was removed from command.”
In another recording Martinez posted on Facebook, Ragin tells her he suspended Neal.
“Was that suspension made based on what has been found?” Martinez says. “Or is that just protocol you suspend until the final …”
I said, ‘Hey. …’ When I first got word of your sister’s case, I read through it and I just said, ‘Something’s not right here.’ And I suspended him.”
On Dec. 16, just after Neal sent his complaint about Wilson up the chain of command, Ragin asked Col. Miller to expand her investigation to include allegations of sexual harassment, mistreatment, and denial of medical care for Alaniz, as well as into Lt. Col. Neal’s incorrect answer to Congress. Ragin wanted to know if Neal and Sidonio knew about any allegations of sexual harassment, assault, or mistreatment—and whether they had pushed Alaniz out of the Army in retaliation for a complaint of sexual harassment or assault.
On May 5, 2021, Miller concluded in her report that Alaniz hadn’t reported any sexual harassment, assault, or any other mistreatment to Lt. Col. Neal and his team—23 witnesses said they had never seen any bad conduct, and Alaniz hadn’t reported it. She found “insufficient evidence” that Sidonio, who hadn’t yet been in the company and who had already been cleared by CID, had sexually harassed Alaniz.
But she found Sidonio guilty of “cruelty and maltreatment” for making Alaniz take a fitness test while she was on profile and after she’d left the emergency room—even though Alaniz hadn’t provided documentation for either, as she had been asked to do and as is required by Army regulations.
If Alaniz hadn’t taken the tests, she wouldn’t have failed them, Miller reasoned, and she wouldn’t have been processed out of the Army.
Sidonio says he followed regulations with Alaniz’s fitness test and discharge paperwork.
“If I follow the regulations, and I’m still wrong, then the regulation is wrong,” Sidonio says.
And, Miller wrote, Sidonio’s comment that Schaffrin should “get checked, too,” after he fell out of a run also fell under “cruelty and maltreatment,” according to regulations.
“I find [1st Sgt.] Sidonio knew about [Pfc.] Alaniz’s reasons for routinely being on profile, foot and ankle pain, and made the comment not to make fun of 1LT Schaffrin, but instead to humiliate and single out PFC Alaniz based on her chronic profile ailments and/or because she contracted an unknown bad infection,” Miller wrote.
Miller also found that Lt. Col. Neal intentionally provided incorrect information to Rep. Speier’s office’s Congressional Request for Information.
“I find that his signature delaying her surgery on the surgery request memo is sufficient evidence that he knew his denial in the FRI response was both false and made with an intent to deceive,” she wrote. “Given his rank and experience, the importance of providing as accurate information as possible in response to a Congressional request, and previously signing an official document delaying the surgery, I don’t believe LTC Neal made this statement accidentally or out of forgetfulness.”
Neal called that an unfair assessment.
“Only the investigating officer thinks it’s dishonorable,” Neal says. Neal’s brigade commander told investigators that he knew Neal had made an unintentional mistake.
Miller recommended that Neal be relieved and face possible UCMJ action for making a false official statement, failing to ensure Alaniz received proper medical care, and “allowing a culture of fear to exist which was not in keeping with the Army tradition of taking care of Soldiers.”
She recommended that Alaniz’s platoon sergeant, who had asked her to bring her hospital discharge paperwork, receive adverse administrative action for not advocating for Alaniz to not take the test and to have her surgery.
Miller recommended potential UCMJ action against Sidonio for “cruelty and maltreatment” for telling Schaffrin to get checked, too, requiring Alaniz to take a test just after leaving the emergency room, and “frustrating” Alaniz’s attempts to get surgery.
As part of the investigation, Schaffrin faced a permanent memorandum of reprimand for not admonishing Sidonio for the, “You should get checked, too,” statement. He had been chosen for the Aeromedical Evacuation Pilot program, and he worried that the flag could hurt his career—and he didn’t believe he deserved it.
Because he knew Sidonio’s comment had been aimed at him—he had fallen out of a run—it didn’t occur to him to think that Sidonio was mistreating Alaniz.
‘It Probably Hasn’t Stopped Since’
Schaffrin’s reprisal memorandum was filed at the unit level rather than being a permanent record in his file, and he recently graduated from flight school, Jennifer Neal says.
Sidonio was also flagged. That triggered a board to determine if he should be retained in the Army or booted out. He had planned to stay in the Army for 30 years, but the accusation effectively ruined his career by keeping him from the Sergeants Major Academy. And, at the time the investigation began, he still needed two more years to be eligible to retire. The board would decide whether to administratively separate him from the Army with no retirement.
“It’s basically me begging to be retained so that I can retire,” Sidonio said before his board. “I refuse to show contrition, because I’m innocent.”
He won his Quality Management Program board, which found he could continue to serve. He chose to serve just long enough to retire, and then he left the Army. He recently finished hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Neal was suspended from his leadership position on Dec. 11, 2020, as Miller’s investigation began. He was flagged while he was under investigation for making a false official statement, then pending his officer evaluation, and then pending his promotion review board. After Miller’s investigation, a letter of reprimand was placed in his file for answering the congressional inquiry questions incorrectly.
He’d been selected for Senior Service College and felt he had been on the path to general officer.
“Unmatched potential!” Howe, Neal’s brigade commander, wrote in Neal’s officer evaluation in January of 2021. “[Lt. Col.] Neal is the #5 of 27 Colonels across the Brigade. A gifted tactical leader and clinical visionary in his field, Phillip is in the top 5% of the strategic leaders I have served with in over 30 years.”
But the flag prevented Neal from attending the Senior Service College.
After Ragin left and new leadership moved into the unit, no one seemed willing to take on Neal’s case with its whiff of scandal in the aftermath of Vanessa Guillén’s murder.
“Now this becomes my opinion: I think they really needed to show that they were being tough on crime,” Phillip Neal says. “The climate had been such that everyone had been punished, or underreacting to other people’s complaints, or not investigating things and not taking strong enough action. But no one to this day has ever been punished for overreacting to anything.”
He was promoted to colonel in August, with an effective date of September 2021 because the flag had held up promotion. But he hasn’t received his back pay from his original promotion date. “He unceremoniously stuck on new rank and went back to work,” Jennifer Neal says. “Bittersweet.”
His request to have his general officer memorandum of reprimand removed was denied. They plan to appeal it once more with the Army, then take it to federal court if it’s denied again.
In the meantime, Neal works in the sleep clinic, treating sleep apnea. He brought dental sleep medicine to the Army, Jennifer Neal says.
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“He went over and carved out a nook in the sleep clinic and has now established all kinds of stuff—gotten a grant for research,” she says. “That’s who he is: He’s helping soldiers.”
Jennifer Neal says she and Martinez talked a few times and came to an understanding that Alaniz should have been better looked after. She should have had time to heal. Her leaders should have been given the opportunity to help her. She might not have died in a middle-of-the-night crash had she not been dealing with trauma on her own.
Martinez took down the social media posts accusing Neal and Sidonio of harassment.
In one of the deleted posts, she had written: “Why did my sister have to die?”
This War Horse investigation was reported by Kelly Kennedy, edited by Chuck Vinch, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler.