The death of a Mexican-born soldier at the Fort Hood U.S. Army base in Texas this week is tragic reminder of the epidemic of sexual abuse at U.S. military bases, according to accounts of the victim’s family and advocates of reforms to better protect troops.
Private Ana Basaldua Ruiz, a 21-year-old combat engineer who was stationed with the 1 st Cavalry Division for the last 15 months, was found dead on Monday, according to a statement on late Wednesday by her commanding officer with the 91 st Engineer Battalion.
Basaldua, a U.S. citizen originally from Michoacan, Mexico, had reported to her parents that she was a victim of sexual harassment, according to her parents. The family say military officials told them they believe the cause of death may have been suicide.
"I refuse to think it was that ... It doesn't check out because of my daughter's character," her mother, Alejandra Ruiz Zarco, told Univision News by phone, from Tacámbaro, Michoacán, about 250 miles west of Mexico City. "She was a brave woman, strong, indomitable," she added through tears.
The causes of her death remain under investigation, according to Army officials at Fort Hood, the same base where another soldier, Vanessa Guillén, was reported missing and later found dead in 2020.
On Thursday afternoon, Fort Hood confirmed "no foul play is evident" in Basaldua's death. "Information related to any possible harassment will be addressed and investigated fully," it added.
The investigation into Guillen’s death in 2020 not only exposed deep flaws in the leadership at Fort Hood, one of the country’s largest bases, it also highlighted what a report later called a “toxic culture” of sexual abuse.
For years, critics of the military have pointed to its own Pentagon data showing how many crimes go unreported for fear of reprisals from fellow soldiers, and even senior officers. Even when assaults are reported the military justice system fails to investigate them properly due to an institutional reluctance to expose discipline problems in the ranks which can be an obstacle to promotions.
"It sounds alarm bells to me"
“When I read the press reports about this latest incident, it took me right back to the tragedy of Vanessa Guillen,” said Josh Connolly vice-chairman of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights group dedicated to ending sexual abuse in the military. “Suicide doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We need to know what happened, what potential harassment she faced ... that would have caused such desperation for this woman to take her own life. It sounds alarm bells to me,” he added.
“I’m not at all convinced that the command climate [at Fort Hood] is at a good place at this moment. I’m not at all they have got their act together yet, and that could have been a contributing factor,” he added.
Connolly said he had been in contact with Basaldua’s family and hoped that the lessons learned from the “botched investigation” of the Guillen case would ensure that the victims’ family would be provided timely information about what the investigation reveals.
“It’s just so sad and tragic and disappointing,” said Queta Rodriguez, a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain, who was a member of Pentagon-appointed team that investigated abuses at Fort Hood after Guillen’s death in 2020.
“They promised they would move quickly. They accepted all our findings but I don’t know where they are at in implementing everything,” she added. “You can’t legislate leadership and culture. Unless there is a significant investment in changing the culture, noting will prevent these things from happening.”
The 'I am Vanessa Guillen Act'
Guillen’s death sparked a national campaign led to major changes in legislation, such as the 'I Am Vanessa Guillen Act' that requires that independent prosecutors handle sexual assault cases in the military in order to remove the chain of command from legal decisions, as well as making sexual harassment a crime.
But the results are yet to be seen. The latest Pentagon report on sexual abuse at the elite leadership and training academies for the last school year found a disturbing increase in incidents of abuse, despite the recent reforms.
Report finds sexual abuse rife at military academies
The Department of Defense estimated that 63% of women and 21% of men attending the schools were sexually harassed last academic year, both record high numbers. In total, an estimated 3,940 of the military’s total of 12,700 cadets and midshipmen were sexually harassed.
“The numbers have been rising steadily for the last two decades,” said Col Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. Despite over a billion dollars spent and dozens of reforms implemented, the sexual assault and harassment rates are at record highs, he added.
The data, compiled from an anonymous survey of students, report suggested that women attending the academies were almost three times more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted than women serving on active duty.
The 12,700 students are enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy, considered training grounds to shape the future leaders of the military.
The report also found that most victims do lack the confidence in leadership to openly report sexual abuse. Of the estimated 1,136 survivors, only 92 made an ‘unrestricted’ report, requiring an investigation of the accused assailant. In other words, over 90% of victims never step forward to identify their offender.
“This means that it is likely hundreds of sex offenders are brought into the active force every year from the academies. One can only imagine the negative impact these future officers will have on the active force,” said Christensen.
Moreover, accountability for offenders remains almost nonexistent. In total, the academies only court-martialed five offenders and only 2 were convicted of a sexual offense. In other words, only 2.1% of reports resulted in an offender being convicted and only 0.17% of the 1,136 victims saw their offender convicted.
Toxic culture at Fort Hood, home to 35,000 soldiers
In extreme cases, when sexual abuse goes unchecked, it can lead to suicide, or murder. In 2021, the Army reported that it had investigated more than 50 suicides and 11 homicides in Fort Hood over the previous five years.
Whatever the investigation reveals – suicide, or perhaps murder - in the case of Private Basaldua, sexual abuse is likely to have been a factor, said Christensen. “I’m confident sexual abuse is one of the things that drives these tragic incidents,” he said. “Sadly, she [Ana Basaldua] is not the first, and unless things change, she won’t be the last,” said Christensen.
The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin lll has led efforts to reform the military culture after the passage of new laws, including the 'I Am Vanessa Guillen Act'.
We won’t see the full effect of the reforms for quite a while. The reforms gave the military two years to prepare the implementation of the new rules, which don’t enter in effect until December this year. The reforms will only cover incidents that occur after that that date.
“The military fought these reforms for over a decade. Now they are championing the changes. It’s frustrating that we took a decade to get to this point,” said Christensen.
While the reforms are an important step in the right direction, much more needs to be done, victims' advocates say.
“It’s not a panacea. There have to be cultural changes. It’s going to require commanders in the military to get more serious about addressing these issues,” he said.