WASHINGTON — “The Army was her dream. That dream was shattered because the Army failed to keep her safe.”
Those were some of the words spoken by U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia on Tuesday as the Texas Democrat joined members of Minority Veterans of America for a rally on Capitol Hill. Their demand: Systemic change in how the military handles sexual harassment and abuse claims.
The rally, called “Justicia for Vanessa,” was held in the name of Army SPC Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Hispanic soldier whose April 22 disappearance brought to light allegations she’d made to her family about sexual harassment at Fort Hood. Guillen’s dismembered body was found buried in shallow graves June 30 along the Leon River in Belton, Texas, about 30 miles from the base.
Federal court documents allege a fellow soldier, SPC Aaron David Robinson, bludgeoned Guillen to death with a hammer in an arms room on the base, where she worked as a small arms and equipment repairer. Robinson and his civilian girlfriend, Cecily Anne Aguilar, are accused of using a machete and an ax or hatchet to dismember Guillen, who was then burned, encased in concrete and buried.
Robinson, 20, fatally shot himself as Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, investigators closed in on him early July 1 in nearby Killeen. Aguilar, 22, of Killeen, is charged with conspiracy and tampering with evidence in Guillen’s slaying.
The motive for Guillen’s killing is not clear. Army officials have said Robinson has not been tied to the sexual harassment allegations, which CID agents said earlier this month remained unsubstantiated.
Nevertheless, dozens of female military veterans have turned to social media, where, using the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, they have told their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse while serving their country. Army vet Melissa Bryant said Tuesday that Guillen, who “served with her whole heart and dared to live the American dream,” had her dream crushed by a comrade in the ranks at Fort Hood.
“Enough is enough,” said Bryant, who helped organize Tuesday’s rally. “We are here today to say that her death is not in vain.”
The Guillen family and their attorney, Natalie Khawam, have said Vanessa Guillen never reported her alleged harassment to her supervisors out of fear of reprisal and a lack of trust that the problem would be addressed.
Watch Tuesday’s news conference outside the Capitol below, courtesy of NowThis.
Bryant said meaningful legislation needs to be passed to remove unlawful command influence and bias that influence sexual assault and harassment investigations. She said Guillen’s death should be a “wake-up call” to the entire military structure about the weak policies that “have forced (female military members) to live in a daily hell” while in uniform.
A proposed piece of legislation, dubbed the I Am Vanessa Guillen bill, would allow active-duty service members to report sexual harassment and assault to a third-party agency instead of their supervisors. Guillen’s family is set to meet with President Donald Trump on July 29 to discuss the bill, which Khawam and the family are expected to introduce the following day.
A march from the Capitol to the White House is scheduled for July 30, according to Khawam.
Guillen’s disappearance and death have prompted multiple investigations, including one into Fort Hood’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, and an assessment of “whether the command climate is supportive of soldiers reporting incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault” and to identify any systemic issues with the SHARP program, Fort Hood officials said earlier this month.
A separate probe is being conducted by the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, of which Guillen was a member. Garcia announced the investigation last week in a news conference with Guillen’s family, and Army officials confirmed to Army Times that a probe had been opened into the slain soldier’s allegations.
U.S. Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy announced July 10 that the Army is conducting an investigation into the “command climate and culture” at Fort Hood, as well as the surrounding military community.
A panel of civilian consultants will spend five to 10 days at Fort Hood, where they “will review historical data, such as command climate surveys, Inspector General reports, criminal/military justice reports and sexual harassment and sexual assault response program statistics,” McCarthy said in a news release.
“Additionally, they will conduct interviews with military members and members of the Fort Hood community,” the release said.
Guillen’s family, joined by multiple members of Congress, has called for a congressional probe into wrongdoing on the base. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have called for the Department of Defense’s acting inspector general, Sean O’Donnell, to conduct an independent investigation into Guillen’s disappearance and killing.
Garcia sent a letter to O’Donnell July 6 in support of the legislators’ request. A total of 87 of Speier and Garcia’s fellow members of Congress signed onto the letter.
“In response to this case, current and former Latina servicemembers have demonstrated incredible bravery in sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and assault in the military,” Garcia wrote.
The congresswoman wrote that the women’s stories “reinforce a troubling reality” that the Defense Department in 2019 reported a 3% increase in the number of sexual assault cases across all branches of the military.
“This epidemic of sexual violence disproportionately impacts women of color, who are also less likely to report their sexual harassment or assault out of fear of retaliation,” Garcia’s letter said. “This is deeply concerning given that the ranks of the United States military have become more diverse over time.”
Latino and Latina servicemembers make up 16% of active-duty military, she wrote.
Speier, who joined Garcia and Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., at Tuesday’s rally, said the military’s approach to addressing the problem has been an “epic moral failure.” Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel, said for years, the government has “thrown millions of dollars at the problem.”
“The results haven’t changed,” she said. “They’ve only gotten worse.”
She spoke of several alleged experiences shared with her recently by female military members, including a young woman who said she was drugged and raped at a party for a fellow airman while in her first week of U.S. Air Force tech school. The woman and her alleged assailants all received the same punishment, Speier said: A letter of reprimand for underage drinking.
“Their experience speaks volumes,” Speier said of the women who have spoken up. “(It) makes it clear that we must seize this watershed moment to usher in a movement that finally ends the scourge.”
“They failed to meet the very basic bargain between the armed services and our young men and women who enlist,” Garcia said of military leaders. “We have to make sure this never happens again.”
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