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Congressional leaders unite in support of new 'Vanessa Guillen Act' to prevent sexual abuse in the military and other felonies

In a step forward for victims of sexual abuse in the military, a bipartisan group of members of Congress from both chambers will present a new legislative proposal on Wednesday to move the decision to prosecute accused offenders out of the chain of command. The bill would also cover felonies such as murder and domestic violence. (Leer este articulo en español)
22 Jun 2021 – 06:35 PM EDT
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Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Kirsten Gilibrand are leading the legislative push to address sexual abuse in the military. Crédito: Getty images / Univision

The new bill being introduced Wednesday brings together two competing bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate, potentially smoothing the way for swift passage into law of what would be a historic piece of legislation.

The bill, titled the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, is the joint work of Rep. Jackie Speier of California and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who have led the campaign in Congress to prevent sexual abuse in the military, and also has the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In a bicameral effort designed to move more quickly toward a vote, Speier is adapting previous legislation she introduced in the House last month with some changes to bring it closer to a proposal introduced by Gillibrand in April, according to an official announcement from Speier's office. It also has the support of several other congressmen, including Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar of Texas.

"The bills are virtually identical. We worked very closely together to make sure that was the case," said a spokesperson for Gillibrand's office.

For decades, efforts in Congress have failed to pass laws that would protect women – and men – from sexual harassment and assault while serving in the military, due to a lack of political will and resistance from the military.

But that changed following the disappearance and murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood, Texas, last year, which sparked massive public outrage and solidarity with her grieving family.

Obstacles

Reform advocates say the united efforts of Gillibrand and Speier could make the difference this time. "It's very close. It's united, it's bipartisan, it's got both houses," said Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the military.

But the resistance hasn't entirely gone away. The new bill is also an effort to pressure two key senators, both Army veterans, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who are blocking the legislation from moving forward quickly.

Reed, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has prevented the bill from being voted on unanimously in committee, which would drastically speed its passage.

Reed and Inhofe are accused of doing the bidding of the military brass - generals and admirals - who are trying to limit the scope of Gillibrand's bill, which would eliminate the chain of command not only for sex crimes, but for other felonies, including murder.

"The military clearly knows they've lost on the sex abuse issue, so now they want to make a strategic retreat and make sure they don't lose anything else," Christensen said.

Guillen legacy

“We are proud of our hard work and efforts and excited to see the marriage of the Gillibrand and Speier bills and the name that will honor Vanessa’s legacy for life,” said Natalie Khawam, the lawyer of the Guillen family. Vanessa's sisters, Mayra and Lupe Guillen will be attending the announcement of the new bill on Wednesday.

Khawam said it was important that the bill is passed quickly, “so that our soldiers are protected as they deserve to be, and that what happened to Vanessa will never happen again.”

The Guillen family has led a national campaign to pressure the Pentagon to make major reforms that would allow for independent prosecutors who do not answer to the military chain of command. Too often, critics say, abusers are allowed to get away with sexual harassment and assault because commanders prefer to cover up abuses to protect their reputations and those of their units.

Bipartisan coalition

The new bill echoes Gillibrand’s legislation - and its name - and removes the decision to prosecute non-military felonies, such as rape, domestic violence and murder, from the chain of command and puts it in the hands of trained, independent military prosecutors. If passed in the House, the new bill will serve as a companion to the Gillibrand legislation, which already has the backing of 65 senators.

Gillibrand's proposal, which was introduced in late April, also envisioned several new prevention provisions, including more and better training for commanders and increased physical security measures, such as better lighting on military bases and security cameras.

Despite efforts in recent years by the Pentagon to address the problem, reports of sexual assault have doubled, while the rate of prosecutions has declined. One in 16 women in the Army reported being groped, raped or sexually assaulted in 2018.

Gillibrand's proposal garnered a rare bipartisan alliance of dozens of key Senate members, including Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Gillibrand introduced the Military Justice Improvement And Increasing Prevention Act in the U.S. Senate in late April together with Senator Joni Ernst, the Iowa Republican who is also a military veteran.

Two weeks later Speier introduced her legislation, which included some differences, and more specifically addresses sexal abuses. Speier's bill also contemplated creating a process for filing financial claims for damages by service members who survive sexual violence when the military has been negligent, as well as reforms to improve the military's sexual harassment/assault response and prevention program (SHARP).

The new bicamerial bill includes Gillibrand's more expansive language covering all serious crimes, not just sexual abuse, while setting aside the claims issue. Khawam said the Guillen family had received assurances that the financial claims element in the legislation will now be taken up separately later this year as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

"It's the best of both worlds, if everything goes the way it's been planned," said Khawam.

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