When I asked the soldiers at Fort Hood what they thought was the issue at the base, they mentioned “toxic leadership,” a Catholic term that seemed to encompass everything: carelessness, general command climate, and so-called toxic masculinity. (There was literal toxicity to the base as well, as some of the mold-infested barracks where the soldiers lived were “technically doomed,” according to Maureen Elliott, a military wife and defender of the home.)
Toxic leadership is nothing new. The ancient Greeks wrote epic poems on the subject, the most famous of which is the Iliad. Agamemnon shows disrespect, vanity, and other errors of judgment, the result of which is what clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes as “moral damage,” a “(i) betrayal of what is right, (ii) by someone in authority. legitimate, (iii) in a high risk situation “. Such moral damage impairs social trust, which is then “replaced by the established expectation of harm, exploitation and humiliation of others”, resulting in despair and violence towards oneself and towards others.
After the public protests began, Fort Hood launched something it called Operation Phantom Action, a kind of week-long retreat that was meant to rebuild trust between soldiers and leadership. A sergeant in Guillen’s division called it “mandatory fun days.” The additional scrutiny – the congressional delegation visit, press tours – meant that the soldiers had to work harder. Many specifically complained that they were forced to cut the grass to be ready for such official visits. The Army’s own investigation found “major flaws” at Fort Hood, leading to the firing or suspension of 14 officers. (Fort Hood declined all official interview requests for this story, citing ongoing investigations. As publication approached, it stopped responding to emails relating to both specific questions about individual cases and broader inquiries based on ).
As harrowing as the remains in shallow graves or the lost hyoid bone is the fatalism of soldiers and locals alike. None of the growls 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 ties to the military, all seemed resigned to certain fates. They sadly pointed out past cases, some of which had public records and others of which I could not find traces in the official archives.
The women, who make up 17 percent of the active duty military, were doubly stripped and the case files were awash with death stories. Last December, an internal investigation found that Fort Hood’s culture, environment, and leadership made women feel “vulnerable and prey,” without a reliable resource for their true sense of coercion.
Before Guillen, there was Private LaVena Lynn Johnson, who was found dead in a tent in 2005 in Iraq. It was ruled a suicide until his father noticed that he had a broken nose, a black eye, loose teeth and burns on his genitals.
In 2007, also in Iraq, the death of specialist Kamisha Block was declared an accident by a single shot of friendly fire before the family received the body and saw that he had five gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Also that year, Marine Corporal Lance Maria Lauterbach was raped by her superior, which she reported. He eventually murdered her when she was eight months pregnant and then set her on fire before fleeing to Mexico.
Around Guillén’s murals in Killeen and in Houston, I met people who had lost loved ones to the military, who felt badly done, who saw Guillén as a savior. “He no longer belongs to the Army,” AnaLuisa Tapia, a local organizer, told me. “She is now in favor of the movement.”
By dying, Guillén has become a kind of patron saint for all those who feel aggrieved by the US military. When she dies, she is no longer a daughter, sister or partner. She has become that complicated and indelible thing: a heroine.
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