As a child, Karina Lopez dreamed of being a soldier and achieved that ambition in 2016 when she joined the Army.
But within three years she was utterly disillusioned, contemplating suicide and desperate to quit.
Lopez, 24, is only the latest female soldier to come forward in a wave of denunciations of sexual abuse in military ranks following the tragic murder last year of Private Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood, Texas.
Lopez, who served at the same military base describes herself as “the case before Vanessa,” and is haunted by the thought that if she had fought harder, or her military commanders had paid more attention to her plight, Guillen might still be alive.
“If someone had taken my case seriously that could have saved her,” she told Univision in a series of lengthy interviews.
The death of Guillen brought much-needed attention to the over-looked issue of sexual abuse in the military, prompting a push for legislation to reform the military justice system to protect victims, as well as a detailed report about conditions at Fort Hood.
The I am Vanessa Guillen Act, which was introduced in Congress in October, seeks to put independent military prosecutors in charge of sexual abuse cases, while also declaring sexual harassment a crime in the military justice system.
Although the bill was not voted on, largely due to the political maelstrom that followed the Nov 3 elections, it is expected to be reintroduced quickly, possibly as soon as next month by its chief sponsor, California congresswoman Jackie Speier.
The storming of the Capitol on January 6, and the heavy security around the inauguration of President Joe Biden, forced the cancellation of a proposed Justice for Vanessa Guillen march in Washington on Thursday.
A Biden “priority”
However, the results of the 2020 election are seen as a positive outcome for advocates of reform. “Historically speaking, the Republican party has not been very favorable to military reform. With the Senate turning blue we believe we have a higher likelihood of success,” said Natalie Khawam, the lawyer for the Guillen family.
Biden is also seen as an ally of women’s equality, unlike former President Donald Trump. In a statement last month, Biden said he would “ make it a priority at the highest levels to end the scourge of sexual violence and harassment against women service members."
Biden’s newly confirmed Secretary of Defense, retired General Lloyd Austin, is widely respected as strong on military justice. “I certainly believe that we need to do better, a lot of things better, in terms of investigation and prosecutions,” he told a hearing in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.
He added that Biden was committed to forming a 90-day commission to examine the issue. “ But I won’t wait for 90 days to get after this. As I indicated this starts with me, and you can … count on me getting after this on day one,” he said.
On Saturday, in his first directive upon taking office, Austin gave senior leaders two weeks to send him reports on sexual assault prevention programs in the military, and an assessment of what can be done to improve the system.
Advocates for reform see the stars aligning like never before. “I feel like we are on the verge of success. I really feel it’s inevitable now,” said retired Colonel Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force who now heads Protect our Defenders, which advocates on behalf of victims of abuse in the military.
As the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces, Biden holds great influence over the military. “The military is very aware of civilian control,” said Christensen, who compared the sexual abuse issue to the end of the ban on openly gay men and woman serving in the military under President Barack Obama in 2010.
Fort Hood report
The military is already taking action following a devastating report in December by an independent review which found a “permissive” climate of sexual abuse among commanders at Fort Hood.
The report received more than 300 credible accounts of sexual assault and harassment, many of which were not reported for fear of retaliation. The Pentagon accepted all of the report’s 70 recommendations and 14 Army leaders on Fort Hood were relieved or suspended.
At a meeting earlier this month with Army leaders, Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said he was told action was already being taken to bolster the Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program to ensure independent investigations of sexual abuse allegations and to prevent retaliation against accusers.
“We were assured that this is going to be introduced by policy and regulation,” he said, adding that the need for legislation was not raised at the meeting, which was attended by outgoing Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.
“I am optimistic. But, it’s very difficult to change culture. That won’t happen overnight,” said Queta Rodriguez, a former U.S. Marine who was one of the authors of the Fort Hood report.
“It takes a very long-term approach. The Army leadership is taking this very seriously and is committed to doing something about it. I don’t think any of us anticipated all 70 recommendations would be accepted as they were written,” she told Univision.
“We’ve got a problem”
Fort Hood says it has already begun that process by launching ‘ Operation People First’ designed to set aside a week every month to improve relations between commanders and soldiers.
On the day the Fort Hood report as issued in December, the base commander, Lt. Gen. Pat White, addressed the 1,800 enlisted soldiers. “I will tell you, in my 33 years of service, that was the biggest gut punch I’ve ever received,” he told them. “We’ve got a problem we’ve got to fix,” he added.
An Army spokesperson said a People First Task Force "will present its recommendations to Army leadership as quickly as possible for Army senior leaders’ review and implementation." The spokesperson added that the Army does not comment on pending legislation.
But skeptics warn that the Army still has work to do to regain public trust. Reports of sexual assaults have kept rising in recent years, according to official reports, including a 13% jump in 2018 and a 3% increase in 2019.
After Guillen went missing in April last year, groups like LULAC urged Latinas not to join the military. Others, like Houston Rep. Sylvia Garcia, say the committee's report does not give soldiers a "truly confidential way to report sexual violence."
Guillen, a 20-year-old from Houston, was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas when she went missing April 22. Her dismembered remains were found June 30 in a shallow grave near a river and her suspected killer committed suicide hours later when he was approached by police.
Lopez was so moved by Guillen’s case that she created the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen. “My mother said you are Vanessa. I realized I was. She and me went through the same thing,” Lopez said. “Within hours people I knew were using this hashtag. It went viral,” she added.
After she was sexually assaulted in her room by another soldier, Lopez says she was subjected to retaliation and her complaints were ignored by her commanding officers with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
She filed a whistleblower complaint with the Army, which she supplied Univision a copy of. The Army cannot comment on whistleblower complaints due to privacy considerations. the Pentagon spokesperson said.
Lopez’s case appears to be typical of other women soldiers who say they suffered abuse and retaliation which was covered up by senior officers in an attempt to protect their careers and the reputation of their units. When she reported it to the Army's sexual abuse prevention program (SHARP), she says the retaliation only got worse.
Her worried mother called her mentor, Command Sgt Major Sheldon Moore, for help. He arranged for Lopez to meet with someone from the office of the Army Inspector General, as well as a chaplain and a victim advocate.
Moorer, 50, confirmed trying to help Lopez, though he said he is not familiar with the details of her case.
He retired from the Army last July after 30 years. “She’s still my soldier. She’s like my daughter,” he told Univision. “Of course, I can’t interfere in her chain of command. I just wanted to make sure she was being treated fair. She didn’t get the support she deserved,” he added.
Lopez said her case was originally investigated by the Army and closed after her assailant could not be identified. The case was later reopened after the disappearance of Guillen, however she said she had lost faith in the Army’s ability to conduct an honest investigation.
In 2019 she had enough and filed for honorable discharge. She finally left Fort Hood March 2, 2020, less than two months before the disappearance of Guillen.
She has since moved back to live with her mother in North Carolina, and has stopped taking her Army-prescribed medications.
“It’s sad that it took a hashtag to really start looking for her. We are treated like second class citizen in the military,” she said.
( For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential. The Defense Department also has a Safe Helpline dedicated to helping anyone affected by sexual assault at www.safehelpline.org or 877-995-5247.)