Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks to servicewomen at the Military Women’s Memorial 25th Anniversary Ceremony at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, in October 2022. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza, courtesy of the Defense Department.

Short Changed: Military Women Face Assault, Harassment, Death. Is Culture to Blame?

This article is part of Short Changed, a series looking at the noncombat deaths of women going back to 9/11.

During her last visit home, Army Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney asked her father to break her arm so she wouldn’t have to return to Iraq.

She even suggested how he do it: Hit her arm with a baseball bat or run over it on a curb, her dad, Matt Heavrin, recalled. He knew she felt unhappy—depressed even—and that the military could be a lonely place. He’d spent four years in the Navy as a young man. McKinney, 20, would be leaving a young son and husband at home.

Army Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney died after another soldier ran her over and then left her in the street in Iraq. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Army Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney died after another soldier ran her over and then left her in the street in Iraq. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Still, the plea to break her arm struck him as extreme.

He urged his daughter to go back to Iraq and finish her deployment. When it was all over, he told her, she could make plans for what she would do after the Army. After two weeks at home, she returned to Camp Taji in May 2006.

Two service members showed up on the Heavrin family’s doorstep four months later, on Labor Day. Heavrin was at work at the local power plant when his wife, Barbie, called and asked him to come home right away. One of the men looked like a chaplain, and they wouldn’t tell her anything until he got there. They absorbed the news together. Hannah, their free-spirited daughter, would not be coming home.

The Army told Heavrin and his wife that McKinney had been struck as she crossed the street to use the latrine, Heavrin said.

It would take months for McKinney’s family to piece together the truth of their daughter’s final night: A young woman who served in a military that promises to leave no one behind, had been run over by a 10,000-pound Humvee and left to die, alone.

The driver, a sergeant named Damon Shell, admitted to drinking and driving drunk, and to supplying McKinney, a junior enlisted soldier, with alcohol. They’d had a sexual encounter, he said. Around 5:15 a.m., he decided to take her back to the barracks, Shell told investigators.

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At some point, he noticed McKinney was no longer next to him in the passenger seat. He’d felt two bumps—one familiar, where the dirt turned to concrete, the second unfamiliar, “like I ran over something,” he told them. Though he told investigators he knew he might have run over McKinney, he didn’t stop to check. Instead, he went back to the barracks and went to sleep.

The lead tanker in a convoy discovered McKinney lying on the road just before 6 a.m. She was still alive when a medic arrived in the predawn darkness, her pulse weak, her breath shallow and rapid. She was pronounced dead at Cobra Medical Clinic, where medical staff took inventory of her injuries: tire impressions across the right side of her body, abrasions on her left forearm and lower back, bruises on her legs.

The military charged Shell with involuntary manslaughter, drinking, drunk driving, and consensual sodomy. He pleaded guilty to the three lesser charges but took his chances at court-martial on the manslaughter charge. His defense attorneys called what happened a horrible accident, according to The Seattle Times, and the military judge who heard the case agreed, finding Shell not guilty after a day-and-a-half-long trial.

During sentencing, several Army officers spoke on Shell’s behalf, telling the judge how he’d confronted enemy forces and roadside bombs in Iraq. One compared Shell to World War II hero Audie Murphy. Shell was sentenced to 13 months and demoted to private, avoiding a discharge.

“It was like a travesty,” Heavrin said. “The trial was so different from anything I would ever imagine. It was like the good ol’ boy protecting his buddies.”

But that system of self-protection has, for decades, meant women have been left to defend themselves against sexual harassment, sexual assault, and, ultimately, death, advocates and sources told The War Horse in the course of reporting this project. The lack of concern has led many women to believe there’s no reason to report problems: Nothing will be done.

Congress called out the military about the “epidemic” of sexual harassment more than 40 years ago. But as corporate culture improved for women, the services still face horrifying headlines. Blue Angels’ obscenity seen from space. Marines United nude photos are for sale on dark web. Fort Hood victims advocate admits luring soldiers into prostitution. When women do report sexual assault, the vast majority of cases never see a trial, a trend that has continued in recent years.

But now, once again, the military, spurred by Congress, has promised change.

Is it hard to change culture? Sure, say experts in organizational change. That’s why the Defense Department uses basic training as a resocialization tool.

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Yet researchers say long-employed workplace harassment training doesn’t work, and neither do grievance procedures. But manager training does—giving people ownership of the problem. So does having a coworker say, “That’s not right,” as do the intervention programs that teach them how.

Some units have managed it, seemingly through pure force of will at the battalion level, and they provide an example. But change requires buy-in, from the lower enlisted, from the first sergeants they respect, from the officers who make decisions about punishment. It requires bravery from men and women who step forward when they see bad behavior. It requires trust that those at the top care at the personal level.

‘Our Recommendations Will Have Little Impact’

In September 1979, as women joined the ranks in greater numbers than ever before, The Baltimore Sun reported what it called an “epidemic of sexual harassment that has accompanied the rapid influx of women into the lower ranks of the U.S. Army.” Women service members told the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee about widespread sexual harassment, saying fear of retaliation prevented many from reporting it.

So began the pattern of damaging headlines about the mistreatment of women in the armed forces, followed by investigations, official reports, and what seemed to be a reckoning as military brass were called before Congress. More often than not, the scandals involved multiple—or even dozens—of service members and victims.

In 1991, some 70 Navy and Marine Corps officers were accused of sexually harassing or assaulting dozens of women at the annual Tailhook Association Symposium at a Las Vegas Hilton in what remains one of the most infamous military scandals to date. The same year, the testimony of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearings prompted many companies to address sexual harassment in the workplace for the first time. By 1997, 75% of American companies had developed mandatory training programs and 95% had grievance procedures in place.

The Defense Department took its own steps to address the problem, requiring for the first time, in 1991, formal programs that would train service members at every level to “identify and prevent sexual harassment.” In 1993, the Navy made sexual harassment a separate crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A year later, the Defense Department called for more training for senior leaders. And in the spring of 1995, the Task Force on Discrimination and Harassment published 48 recommendations aimed at improving programs and reporting systems for discrimination and harassment.

But, the task force warned, “without the unequivocal support of commanders at all levels, our recommendations will have little impact.”

Soon after, in 1997, female recruits accused a dozen male drill sergeants of rape, forcible sodomy, and harassment at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland; halfway across the country at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 30 soldiers had been implicated in similar crimes. In 2003, more than 60 women came forward to report being raped by Air Force Academy men during the previous decade. In 2011, 17 Air Force training instructors were accused of crimes ranging from rape to inappropriate relationships at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

The harassment continued online.

In 2017, The War Horse broke the story of Marines United, a Facebook group that shared nude photos and personal information of servicewomen without their consent. More than 30,000 active-duty and retired service members belonged to the group.

The headlines came as no surprise to Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine Corps combat photographer and public affairs specialist for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She later co-founded Not In My Marine Corps, which works on behalf of sexual assault survivors.

“It’s ‘bros before hoes,’” she said, a pattern that dates back at least to Tailhook, in which only three of dozens of implicated officers went to court-martial—only to see the cases dismissed.

Few accused service members ever face court-martial. In fiscal year 2022, 5% of the 5,941 unrestricted reports of sexual assault—reports that allow for an official investigation—went to trial. And 123 service members, or 2.1%, were found guilty of nonconsensual sex acts, according to the most recent data available from the Defense Department.

“They circle the wagons,” Kirk-Cuomo said. “I have two cases I’m working right now where the rapist confessed to raping the survivor multiple times to multiple people, and the lawyers still won’t charge him.”

Don Christensen, former Air Force chief prosecutor and former president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, points to a culture of disbelief, despite studies that show false reports are exceedingly rare.

‘Senior leadership Is Either Unaware or Accepting of the Problem’

Part of it is societal, Christensen said. Sexual harassment is not unique to the military. In fact, the percentage of women who say they are sexually harassed in the workforce hasn’t changed since 1980, suggesting that traditional mandatory training programs and grievance procedures adopted by companies in the 1990s aren’t working either—and may be backfiring, according to a study by sociologists at Harvard and Tel Aviv universities.

That’s not to say all companies have failed.

Don Christensen, former Air Force chief prosecutor and former president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said military leadership is “either intentionally unaware or accepting of the problem.” Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Don Christensen, former Air Force chief prosecutor and former president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said military leadership is “either intentionally unaware or accepting of the problem.” Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

“Can culture change? Yes,” said John Kotter, a Harvard Business School’s Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership, emeritus, who has written extensively on organizational change. “The bigger the operation in general, the more slowly it changes. There’s no question about that. You’ve got so many people who have got to change their norms and behaviors.”

And, “big institutions tend to have a lot of management systems and structures and bureaucracies that tend to trample on real leadership, especially at middle levels,” Kotter said.

With more than three million people on its payroll, no organization in the world is bigger than the U.S. Department of Defense.

But change fails for a lot of reasons, including a lack of urgency or vision, or because an organization declares victory prematurely, Kotter said. Another ingredient for failure: bosses who refuse to change.

“If you have enough people at the top of an organization that consciously or unconsciously are uncomfortable with a certain direction of change, do they have a lot of mechanisms they can use to derail it?” Kotter said. “The answer is yes.” That’s why it’s so important that change encompasses people at every level of an organization.

In a military historically made up of men and where most service members remain overwhelmingly so, the majority sees women as the outsiders, the instigators, the source of the problem, Christensen said. Senior leadership is “either intentionally unaware or accepting of the problem. You rarely see them speak out strongly about women serving, what they bring to the service, and how they’re succeeding.”

In 2018, a male student at Virginia Military Institute asked then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis whether women could succeed in combat roles. He called the women in his class fierce.

Mattis told the cadets the “jury is still out,” adding there wasn’t enough data: “And that is, the close-quarters fight being what it is, you know, is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance.”

Mattis missed an opportunity, Christensen said.

“Here is a revered Marine general, the secretary of defense, who, instead of taking the opportunity to really support women in combat roles, did the exact opposite,” Christensen said. “As soon as he said those words, every Marine who thinks a woman can’t be a real Marine, said, ‘Yeah, Saint Mattis, I agree with you.’”

“Many People Do Not Think Women Belong’

On social media, in bars, in barracks, and in political speeches, people routinely attack women for what they perceive as their inability to serve as well as men. But even as women have proved otherwise, the stereotype that they are somehow less trickles up and down, and colors every complaint.

“They won’t say it in public or before Congress, but there are many people wearing stars and admiral stripes who do not think women belong in the service,” Christensen said. “There are some who begrudgingly accept that women should serve, but not in combat roles. If you look at Army Ranger School, 106 women have graduated, yet they get continually trashed. They are accused of not meeting the same standards, or that the standards were lowered, when in fact, they are higher than they were and women are meeting them. Do you hear [Gen. Mark] Milley saying that? Do you hear the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff push back? Do you ever see them stand up and say, ‘This is bullshit. They are meeting the standards, and if you don’t like women in the military, get the hell out’? But they won’t do that. Until that happens, that cultural attitude will still be there.”

He offered an example: The Marine Corps decided against any disciplinary action for a group of Marine intelligence instructors at Dam Neck Naval Annex, Virginia, who the Corps investigated in 2021 for referring to students—mostly women—as “whore,” “slut,” “lot lizard,” “cunt,” and other derogatory names.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands with Marines before a sunset parade at the Marine Barracks Washington in Arlington, Virginia, in 2017. In 2018, he told cadets at Virginia Military Institute that the “jury is still out” on whether women could succeed in combat roles, missing a chance, former chief Air Force prosecutor Don Christensen said, to present women in a positive light to their young peers. Photo by Sgt. Amber I. Smith, courtesy of the Defense Department.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands with Marines before a sunset parade at the Marine Barracks Washington in Arlington, Virginia, in 2017. In 2018, he told cadets at Virginia Military Institute that the “jury is still out” on whether women could succeed in combat roles, missing a chance, former chief Air Force prosecutor Don Christensen said, to present women in a positive light to their young peers. Photo by Sgt. Amber I. Smith, courtesy of the Defense Department.

The instructors’ chain of command, including Maj. Gen. Julian D. Alford, then in charge of Marine Training Command, supported the findings and recommendations to take no punitive action.

(Alford also recommended that Thae Ohu receive a bad conduct discharge after she reported a sexual assault, a sergeant assigned to help her requested sexual favors, she was diagnosed with several mental health issues, and she said she was mistreated in the brig—after a judge recommended she be allowed to stay in the Corps for an additional six months to receive mental health treatment. Alford declined, through Marine Corps public affairs, multiple interview requests.)

The history of women’s service has led to an entrenched separate-and-unequal environment within the military that is proving difficult to dismantle, even after official hurdles have been cleared, advocates say.

“Whether we like it or not, women are in the military,” said Kinsey Spears, who recently completed a doctoral degree focused on gender and security. “And women exist at all roles, at all levels in the military. We have to find ways to make sure that women feel as equal in their communities as your cis heteronormative white male does.”

A culture of retaliation has kept scores of women—and men—from reporting crimes. In 2016, Congress directed the Defense Department to create a comprehensive plan to prevent retaliation. The Retaliation Prevention and Response Strategy Implementation Plan called for the creation of a “culture intolerant of retaliation.”

Still, 31% of men and 28% of women who were sexually assaulted in the military say they experienced retaliation whether they filed an official report with their command or not, according to a 2021 study by Rand Corporation using research published by the Defense Department in 2014.

Christensen also pointed to a growing divide between commanders and prosecutors over the course of his 23-year career as a military prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge. When Christensen entered the Air Force in 1991, commanders and prosecutors worked as a team, he said. By the end of the decade, that began to change.

“We had Air Force commanders who were more than happy to be supporting someone accused of some pretty heinous crimes,” he said. “There were four-star generals writing letters to support those accused of child sex crimes.” By 2002, the year Christensen took over as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor in Europe, “First sergeants were unabashedly supporting sex offenders and testifying on their behalf.”

He recalled one case in which a commander wanted a convicted child molester back in the unit.

When he brought up the issue with colleagues in 2005, “you would have thought I was attacking Muhammad in the center of Mecca,” Christensen said. “I got my head chopped off for daring to say commanders were starting to impede justice. I thought my career was over for saying it.”

Marine Col. Scott F. Benedict, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response commanding officer, greets Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of 3rd Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, during his visit to Morón Air Base, Spain, in 2013. Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert L. Fisher III, courtesy of the Defense Department.

Marine Col. Scott F. Benedict, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response commanding officer, greets Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of 3rd Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, during his visit to Morón Air Base, Spain, in 2013. Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert L. Fisher III, courtesy of the Defense Department.

When Christensen won a rare sexual assault conviction against a lieutenant colonel in 2012, 91 people wrote letters of support—on behalf of the convicted officer. Three months later, Maj. Gen. Craig Franklin, then commander of the Third Air Force, overturned the verdict handed down by a panel of senior officers who’d spent a week listening to evidence. Franklin defended his decision, citing his own “exhaustive and complete review” of the case. He had not consulted with the victim.

After the convicted officer, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, was released from prison and reinstated in the Air Force, Franklin reached out to him personally to offer advice—and tried to get him a promotion.

‘Fighting harassment becomes part of your mission’

Lawmakers, already furious over the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assault, demanded sweeping changes after Franklin’s decision. Among the most significant: Commanders would no longer have the authority to overturn jury convictions.

Franklin was forced to retire after his unilateral decision. Wilkerson was kicked out of the Air Force for good when officials learned he’d fathered a child by someone other than his wife.

Critics in Congress, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a democrat from New York, weren’t done. Over the last decade, the five-year statute of limitations on military rape cases was lifted. Congress made sexual harassment and the posting of private nude photos a crime. The National Defense Authorization Act signed into law in December 2021 gives independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide whether to court-martial servicemembers accused of serious crimes, including murder, sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence. Beginning at the end of 2023, all serious crime cases must go outside the chain of command.

In July 2021 , an independent review into military sexual assault, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, presented 82 recommendations, including shifting sexual assault prosecution outside the chain of command. The report also includes recommendations on improving the military’s response to domestic violence, starting with collecting data about the problem, which the Defense Department does not do. Austin has committed to accepting the commission’s recommendations “wherever possible with adjustments made to ensure effective implementation.” 

But has anything changed?

In April 2022, an Air Force general stood court-martial and was the first general convicted in the service’s 75-year history. Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley had faced up to seven years in prison, a reduction in rank, and dismissal from the service for abusive sexual contact. He received a reprimand, was docked five months’ pay, and was allowed to remain in the military.

For some, it signaled change: “If this result influenced just one survivor to know that his or her attacker’s rank or status would not prevent them from being held accountable, that is a win for the United States and the military justice system,” lead prosecutor Lt. Col. Matthew Neal said afterward.

But advocates say that for real change to occur, action and accountability need to replace studies and recommendations.

“The problem is top down. It’s not bottom up,” said Amy Braley Franck, a victim advocate who worked on behalf of the family of Pvt. Nicole Burnham, who killed herself in 2018 after requesting an expedited transfer following sexual assault—but instead was kept on base, in the same barracks as her assailant. “If you never get held accountable for your bad behaviors, you’re going to continue to do them.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks to servicewomen at the Military Women’s Memorial 25th Anniversary Ceremony at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, in October 2022. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza, courtesy of the Defense Department.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks to servicewomen at the Military Women’s Memorial 25th Anniversary Ceremony at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, in October 2022. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza, courtesy of the Defense Department.

But just as in corporate America, mandatory training programs have, at best, done little in the way of ending sexual harassment and assault in the military.

“Part of it is we have had to push the problem to get action,” Christensen said. “It’s caused a negative reaction among a lot of people in the force.”

Research published by sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in 2019 found that, in addition to no change in the prevalence of workplace harassment since 1980, training actually led to the loss of female managers and made harassers’ behaviors worse. While it sounds counterintuitive, the authors wrote, mandatory training puts men, in particular, on the defensive. They may respond by making jokes—and they’re also more likely to blame the victim, the researchers found.

Grievance procedures don’t help either, the researchers found, writing that a survey of federal workers found two-thirds of women who reported their harassers were “assaulted, taunted, demoted, or fired by their harassers or friends of their harassers.”

But both manager training and bystander intervention programs do help—for similar reasons, Dobbin and Kalev found. Manager training doesn’t put people on the defensive by telling them what not to do, the authors wrote. Instead, it teaches them how to recognize harassment early on and how to intervene quickly to keep it from getting worse. This method approaches audiences not as victims or villains but as people with the power to make a difference.

The same goes for bystander intervention. In 2011, the U.S. Army tried it out on soldiers—and the results were positive and promising. Soldiers who participated in the program were far more likely to report they’d helped an acquaintance or stranger and had acted when they saw sexual assault or stalking either before, during, or after it occurred.

In 2012, the Air Force made bystander intervention training mandatory. The 90-minute classes led participants through scenarios based on real events. In 2021, virtual reality was introduced to airmen at Joint Base Charleston to help teach and practice intervention skills.

“Properly trained bystanders interrupt the sexual joke,” Dobbin and Kalev wrote. “They call out the catcallers. They distract the drunk pair who have just met but are set to leave the party together.” But it all comes back to creating a culture in which “fighting harassment becomes part of your mission.” And that requires as many people as possible, as well as systems of accountability.

Culture shifts begin when one person—or a group of people—try something different that produces an arguably better result, Kotter said.

“It tends to start very small and keeps gaining momentum,” Kotter said. “At some point, people’s minds begin to change. Individual habits start to change. Eventually, down the road, enough individual habits have changed that you can legitimately say the culture has changed.”

It takes work—recognizing those who made the change, and applauding and communicating the results, Kotter said. But it can be done, even in the largest organizations. And while change doesn’t have to start at the top, those at the top can stymie it “if they are strong enough and powerful enough.”

In successful cases, though, “at a certain point there is enough evidence, energy, and enthusiasm around this new way of operating,” he said. “At a minimum [leaders] don’t block it. In the best cases, they become champions.”

‘I Knew That They Had My Back’

When Brianna Ellis arrived at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a fellow soldier began acting strangely. He never spoke to her, but every day, he brought her lunch.

“I didn’t know this dude,” she told The War Horse. “I was new to the unit.”

When she caught a cold, he showed up with medicine—that she hadn’t requested. “I keep telling him, ‘No, thank you,’ and he’s persistent,” she said. One day, he walked into the area where she worked in the supply room and went to sleep. It felt like odd behavior, but did it qualify as harassment?

Ellis went to the soldier’s platoon leader and told him she felt uncomfortable. “‘This dude, he kind of won’t leave me alone,’” she remembers saying. The platoon sergeant took the soldier aside and told him to leave Ellis alone—that there was no reason for him to be in her work area.

Soon after, during a training exercise in August 2021, another soldier said she woke up to the same guy trying to kiss her, Ellis said. Her chain of command brought the male soldier back to the company area to keep him away from the woman who said he attacked her. But that didn’t help Ellis: Unknown to her, he began to follow her.

Brianna Ellis, far right, thought her leadership was simply following orders when her sergeant major and battalion commander repeatedly stated they had an open-door policy for soldiers facing sexual harassment or assault. But after a couple of incidents, she said she believed they meant what they said and that she felt safe within the battalion. Here she poses with her dad, Command Sgt. Maj. Vincent Silva, and mom, Stacey Silva, at her dad’s battalion change of responsibility ceremony.

Brianna Ellis, far right, thought her leadership was simply following orders when her sergeant major and battalion commander repeatedly stated they had an open-door policy for soldiers facing sexual harassment or assault. But after a couple of incidents, she said she believed they meant what they said and that she felt safe within the battalion. Here she poses with her dad, Command Sgt. Maj. Vincent Silva, and mom, Stacey Silva, at her dad’s battalion change of responsibility ceremony.

Here’s where things got really weird:

“My first sergeant noticed,” she said. “He wanted me to feel safe, and he addressed it to him separately. The guy didn’t bother me anymore.”

Ellis said the male soldier received protection orders prohibiting contact with both women, and Ellis’s leadership began to process him out of the military. “They took it very seriously,” she said. But soon after, someone tried to break in through Ellis’s first-floor barracks room window. While they were unable to figure out who it was, they immediately moved Ellis—and all the other women soldiers—to the second floor of the barracks.

“My sergeant major, my leadership, my first sergeant—I knew that they had my back, and I knew that they would take care of me and make sure that I felt safe,” she said. “I was happy to know that the guy got kicked out of the Army.”

At no point did they question her story, make light of her complaint, or treat her as if she was worth less than a badly behaving male soldier, she said. And the problem was addressed quickly at the platoon level: She saw buy-in from her entire chain.

Something else had changed. At Fort Campbell with the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, she also heard briefing after briefing about the Vanessa Guillen case. “They took the matter very serious,” she said, describing her brigade sergeant major, Raul Cantu, as “adamant” about telling soldiers they could speak to him privately if they didn’t feel comfortable talking about sexual harassment or sexual assault with their chains of command.

“The Spaders were the first to integrate females into the combat arms in our brigade—I am sure many leaders maintain similar practices,” said Cantu, who was the operations sergeant major in Guillen’s unit prior to going to Fort Campbell. That experience was integral to how he addressed not just women soldiers, but all soldiers, he said. He confirmed Ellis’ account and said he read the Fort Hood Independent Review, as directed by Army leadership, and took its findings to heart.

Another soldier, Spc. Aaron Robinson, beat Guillen to death with a hammer, prosecutors say, in an arms room at Fort Hood, Texas. He then dismembered her body with an ax. Guillen disappeared April 22, 2020, but wasn’t found until June 30, 2020, after her family protested the military’s lack of effort in the search and celebrities took up the cause. Guillen had also been sexually harassed, military officials determined. Army officials detained Robinson, but he escaped and killed himself with a pistol. The report that followed was damning.

“The Committee determined that serious crime issues on and off Fort Hood were neither identified nor addressed,” it states. “There was a conspicuous absence of an effective risk management approach to crime incident reduction and Soldier victimization. A military installation is essentially a large, gated community. The commander of a military installation possesses a wide variety of options to proactively address and mitigate the spectrum of crime incidents. Despite having the capability, very few tools were employed at Fort Hood to do so.”

The Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program had been ineffective because leadership didn’t embrace it; people underreported sexual harassment; the SHARP program itself is “structurally flawed”; the Fort Hood CID faced inefficiencies that affected its mission; the Army’s sexual assault adjudication process degrades confidence in the SHARP program; and, essentially, “The command climate at Fort Hood has been permissive of sexual harassment/assault.”

At Ellis’s first duty station in Korea, nothing bad happened, but her chain of command didn’t appear to care, she said. And when she first arrived at Fort Campbell, she said she simply didn’t see much of her brigade leadership, except for the Friday pre-weekend briefings: “You know: ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’”

The consistency of her new leadership convinced her that their concern wasn’t just lip service after the Guillen case. “They continued to check up on us,” she said. “And I really liked how [Cantu] would pull the females separately.” He’d ask how they were doing and if there was anything they needed to address. Because it was an infantry unit, there weren’t a lot of women, she said.

“Leadership is different everywhere,” said Ellis, who got out of the Army in October 2021. “I really honestly feel like it just depends where you’re stationed at—the type of leadership you receive.”

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The Guillen committee appears to agree: While the report specifically addressed Fort Hood, it made recommendations for the entire Army.

“Fort Hood in specific—and the committee believes the Army as a whole—must undertake the process of dramatic change in its culture related to sexual harassment and sexual assault,” the report states. “This involves a core change in perspective … Failure to institute this cultural change ostracizes an entire segment of the Army and compromises combat readiness.”

In other words, the Army needed cultural change—and buy-in from its leadership.

“If you don’t have a good brigade commander and you don’t have a good brigade sergeant major, it just falls down the line,” Ellis said. “Leadership follows leadership.”


This War Horse investigation was reported by Kristin Davis, contributed to by Kelly Kennedy, Courtney Mabeus, and Sonner Kehrt, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin and Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Headlines are by Abbie Bennett. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler.

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Kristin Davis

Kristin Davis is the reflections editor for The War Horse. Over the course of her career, she has told stories from living rooms, courtrooms, churches, prison cells, and military bases around the world for publications that include Military Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning The Virginian-Pilot. While working for Military Times, she embedded with the Air Force in Afghanistan and wrote extensively about sexual assault in the military.

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