Inside the rash of unexplained deaths at Fort Hood

When I asked the soldiers at Fort Hood what they thought of the problem at the base, they mentioned “toxic leadership,” a Catholic term that seemed to encompass everything: lack of care, the climate of general command and the lack of care. so-called toxic masculinity. (There was also literal toxicity to the base in that some of the mold-infested barracks the soldiers lived in were “technically doomed,” according to Maureen Elliott, military wife and housing advocate.)

Toxic leadership is nothing new. The ancient Greeks wrote epic poems on the subject, the most famous of which is the Iliad. Agamemnon exhibits disrespect, vanity and other errors of judgment, the result of which is what clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes as a “moral wound” – a “(i) betrayal of what is right, (ii ) by someone with legitimate authority, (iii) in a high stakes situation. Such moral injury deteriorates social trust, which is then “replaced by the established expectation of harm, exploitation and humiliation on the part of others”, leading to despair and violence towards oneself and others.

After the public protests began, Fort Hood launched what it called Operation Phantom Action, a kind of weeklong retreat meant to rebuild trust between soldiers and leaders. A sergeant in Guillen’s division called this “mandatory fun days.” The extra scrutiny – the Congressional delegation visit, the press tours – meant the soldiers had to work harder. Many specifically complained that they had to cut the grass to prepare for such official visits. The military’s own investigation revealed “major flaws” at Fort Hood, resulting in the dismissal or suspension of 14 officials. (Fort Hood has declined all official interview requests for this story, citing ongoing investigations. As the publication drew near, it stopped responding to emails regarding both specific questions about individual cases as well. than broader questions on the base.)

As distressing as the remains in shallow graves or the missing hyoid bone is the fatalism of the soldiers and locals. None of the grunts I spoke to were surprised by the number of casualties. Beyond the base, gas station attendants and restaurant waiters, many of whom were veterans or had military ties, all seemed resigned to certain fates. They pointed to past cases, some of which were public records and others of which I could not find any trace in official records.

Women, who make up 17% of active-duty military personnel, were doubly private and files were awash with stories of the dead. Last December, an internal investigation found that Fort Hood’s culture, environment and leadership made women feel “vulnerable and plagued,” with no reliable recourse for their very real sense of compulsion.

Before Guillen, there was Private LaVena Lynn Johnson, found dead in a tent in 2005 in Iraq. It was ruled a suicide until his father noticed his broken nose, black eye, loose teeth and burns on his genitals.

In 2007, also in Iraq, the death of specialist Kamisha Block was deemed accidental by a single friendly fire before the family received the body and found that she had five gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Also that year Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach was raped by her supervisor, which she reported. He ultimately murdered her when she was eight months pregnant, then set her on fire before fleeing to Mexico.

Around Guillen’s murals in Killeen and Houston, I met people who had lost loved ones to the military, who felt hurt, who saw Guillen as a savior. “She’s no longer in the army,” AnaLuisa Tapia, a local organizer, told me. “She’s now for the movement.”

In death, Guillen has become something of a patron saint to anyone who feels wronged by the US military. In death, she is no longer a daughter or sister or partner. She has become that complicated and indelible thing: a heroine.

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About Darnell Yu

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