Ruth Boomer put on her US Marine Corps military fatigues and was on her way to work when she decided to record a TikTok video. In the video now ‘liked’ over 155,300 times, Boomer, a lance corporal, is in the front seat of a sedan, lacing up her combat boots and speaking to the camera about Vanessa Guillen – a soldier who had disappeared from the Fort Hood military base in Texas shortly after confiding in family that she had been sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier on base.
Boomer serves on the East Coast of the US, but was frustrated by the military’s inaction with the case. “If I get in trouble for talking about that, so be it,” says Boomer, who’s of Ethiopian descent and has served in the military since 2018. It was one of the many videos she posted that week calling for a change in leadership at Fort Hood in response to the growing concern over sexual assault and abuse of power at the base.
On June 30th, Guillen’s remains were found buried along a river not far from Fort Hood. Boomer was devastated. “I originally posted about her because she’s my sister in service, so I’m gonna look out for her,” Boomer tells Huck.
There have been 28 deaths at the base this year – including a string of homicides, fatal accidents, suicides and drownings – Fort Hood has become emblematic of deep-rooted internal issues in the world’s largest military. The base has also become a major topic among military TikTok, with the ‘Fort Hood’ hashtag amassing more than 24 million views. A sizable community of military personnel and veterans use the video app, and while most videos feature dancing or split-screen duets that have become popular with users on the app, military TikTok has also become a place for military personnel to talk about sexual assault, mental health, and racial justice.
A deep dive into military TikTok is both unusual and relatively predictable: soldiers play pranks on each other, make fun of their commanding officers, and complain about basic training. Viking aesthetics are popular, as are chiselled army recruits performing stripteases and veterans recounting stories about combat situations. Guillen’s disappearance sparked conversations across virtually all corners of military TikTok, including those which seldom post about activism.
After her viral video about Guillen, Boomer started receiving a stream of messages from female soldiers about their own experiences of sexual assault, and began offering them help with navigating the military’s internal reporting system. The community of military users from across the US became an important lifeline for her as well. In her videos, she talks about dealing with depression on base, and grapples with the prospect of quitting the military altogether.
The videos are unguarded and emotional, which is something Boomer likes about the app. On TikTok, she’s been able to cultivate a small community of fellow soldiers. “I’m getting a lot of support on TikTok that I don’t get anywhere else,” she says.
As the situation at Fort Hood became increasingly concerning, Boomer kept soldiers and military families updated about the situation at the base. Her videos mention Gregory Scott Morales, a missing Fort Hood soldier who the Army had classified as a deserter until his remains had been uncovered not far from the base, and Elder Fernandes, a Fort Hood sergeant who had come forward to report that he had been the victim of abusive sexual contact before taking his own life in late August.
On TikTok, calls for a formal investigation into the disappearances at Fort Hood are growing louder. The military’s own review into conduct at the base found that one in three women had been sexually assaulted at Fort Hood. The base has been the site of multiple mass shootings, including a terrorist attack carried out by an army major in 2009, and a shooting spree in 2009 carried out by an army specialist. There are also higher than average levels of violent crime at the base, with Stars and Stripes calling it “the Army’s most crime-ridden post”.
For enlisted personnel, Fort Hood has developed a dark reputation as a dangerous post to be assigned. On TikTok, user @corywrieden (who introduces himself as an army sergeant in one of his videos) films from his car while recounting how he’s had to spend his Sunday driving to check on a fellow soldier at Fort Hood who he’s been unable to reach for several days.
And it’s not just soldiers who are using the platform to shed light on what’s happening at Fort Hood. Celine Rocha, a recent musical theatre graduate, started posting to TikTok during lockdown, and her videos have since garnered 2.1 million ‘likes’. While she is not enlisted in the military herself, she has close links to the armed forces community.
“I’m a military brat,” says Rocha, “I grew up on bases like this.” Her father is in the US Air Force, and she also has young cousins who’ve recently joined the army, which prompted her to start posting about Fort Hood.
In one video, Rocha makes a tribute to the soldiers using one of TikTok’s editing features to transpose a Tweet with an image of Morales and Guillen, adding a slowed-down version of Prince Royce’s “Corazon Sin Cara”, a popular remix repurposed in TikTok videos. “It’s kind of hard to hear about the stories of people going missing that look a lot like family members that you have,” she says.
Rocha mainly uses her TikTok account to post political news, researching her topics and then creating a video from her bedroom in Los Angeles. She says that it was important to her to speak up about the cases as a way of raising awareness about the issue outside the base. “It’s such a small, enclosed community,” Rocha says of Fort Hood.
Officially, the US military uses social media for recruitment purposes. However, late last year the US Military announced that it would discontinue its use of TikTok for official business, citing security concerns over the app’s close links to the Chinese government. It prohibited use of the app on government-issued devices, and urged soldiers using the app for personal reasons to do so with caution.
Military TikTok isn’t exempt from the culture of violence that soldiers have had to deal with on base. Nathan Freihofer, a US Army second lieutenant and one of the most popular military celebrities on the app, was suspended from leadership duties after posting anti-semitic remarks on the app. TikTok bans the display of firearms on the app, but footage from battlefields – including firefights, artillery blasts and clips taken from tank turrets – is popular on military TikTok, as well as in the tribute videos posted by military fan accounts, which often glorify wartime violence.
In early September the US Military brought in a new commander at Fort Hood, and the US Congress has announced that they would be launching their own investigation into the deaths at Fort Hood, along with four separate internal investigations launched by the army since Guillen’s murder. “I think TikTok was one of the platforms that put pressure on the investigation,” says Boomer, the lance corporal serving in the Marine Corps.
Rocha says she’s surprised about the impact that the videos have had in a country that defines itself by its military might. “I just wished that this situation would have come to light sooner.”
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