From Texas Public Radio:
After more than a year of intense scrutiny following the disappearance and death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, Fort Hood reworked its public relations strategy. Fort Hood recently opened its gates to community leaders from all over Central Texas in hopes of building a better environment for soldiers and their families.
Politicians, academics, business owners and veterans groups toured the installation to learn about its mission set and population. Lt. Gen. Pat White met the group outside of the III Corps headquarters for a photo and introductions.
“If you have any questions, just ask,” White said. “Really, what this is meant to do is get you back out to tell the story of Fort Hood and the soldiers that are here.”
“There was a trust deficit and a knowledge gap between people in broader communities who were curious about what happened at Fort Hood,” said Col. Myles Caggins, senior spokesman for III Corps and Fort Hood. “They want to know that we’re making changes to culture and that soldiers here have a chance to realize their potential.”
In the last year, Fort Hood was the site of several high profile servicemember disappearances and murders, including those of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, Pvt. Gregory Morales, and Sgt. Elder Fernandes. Those soldiers’ families said they struggled to get base officials to release information about the circumstances surrounding those disappearances, as well as details about active searches and investigations.
During a visit to the Texas base last August, former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Fort Hood has one of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army.
“We are getting an outside look to help us to get to those root causes and understand them so we can make those changes,” McCarthy said during a news conference. “We are going to put every resource and all of the energy we can in this entire institution behind fixing these problems.”
In December, an independent review found that Fort Hood’s PR team needed to maintain a human touch — even in times of crisis. It also pointed out the importance of developing deep and abiding relationships with the community. The recommendations included:
66. The III Corps and Fort Hood Public Affairs Office needs a surge capability and public relations crisis management team.
67. III Corps and Fort Hood must respond quickly and factually to inform the public and help shape public perception.
68. Use a trained spokesperson as the primary means of communicating with the public rather than relying on commanders and law enforcement.
69. Cultivate enduring holistic relationships with community organizations.
70. Make a special effort to keep the Fort Hood community informed.
In addition to changing its public relations strategy, the base embraced what it called a “People First” initiative, focusing on the wellbeing of service members and their families. The corps-wide program has three basic tenets: getting to know soldiers, leaders taking action to maintain trust and discipline, and leaders holding leaders accountable if standards are not met. Fort Hood’s Criminal Investigation Command detachment is also in the midst of a fundamental restructuring.
For AnaLuisa Tapia, regional director for the League of United Latin American Citizens District 17, the base’s new approach was welcome.
“If we’re talking about 2020, when Vanessa’s issue was going on, that was a whole different story,” Tapia said. “You couldn’t reach somebody — they wouldn’t talk to you. ‘It’s under investigation’ was always the magical phrase.”
Tapia is an advocate for the Guillen family and other service members, and she said the post has made a real effort to open lines of communication with soldiers’ families.
“When you have an issue, you need to be able to know who to reach out to,” she said. “Now, the first sergeant reaches out to the family member, next of kin, or emergency contact, to where it’s like, ‘If you should have a question, something happens, please call me.’ ….That brings the community back alive.”
During the VIP event, base officials also fielded questions about military quality-of-life issues like pay, family housing, and conditions in the barracks. Fort Hood’s privately-managed housing infrastructure is aging and has been beset by mold, sewage and pest issues.
Despite the challenges, most attendees expressed optimism about the base’s attempts at outreach and cooperation.
“I’ve seen a lot of the growth within community service — what they have to offer on post that’s available for the families and the community outside,” said Vonya Hart, a military family life counselor and newly elected city councilwoman from nearby Copperas Cove.
The Army pledged to implement all 70 of the recommendations made by the Fort Hood independent review committee, which found systemic leadership and cultural problems on base.