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#IAmVanessaGuillen: family of slain soldier seek Trump’s support for radical reform of military justice

The Guillen family is traveling to Washington DC this week armed with a bill that would radically reform the military justice system. The '#IAmVanessaGuillen' bill seeks to remove sexual abuse cases from military jurisdiction. (Leer en español)
28 Jul 2020 – 11:35 PM EDT
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Gloria and Rogelio Guillen with the family's attorney, Natalie Khawam Crédito: Courtesy of Natalie Khawam.

Vanessa Guillen's family arrived in Washington early Wednesday morning after driving across the country from Texas to push for legislation to end sexual abuse in the military, including a visit to the Oval Office to meet with President Donald Trump.

The family’s visit has intensified legislative debate over calls for reform of the military justice system to protect soldiers who complain about sexual assault and harassment. The Pentagon is under fire for what victim’s advocates are calling an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in the ranks, and a culture of impunity within the chain of command.

The family’s visit also poses a potential dilemma in Washington in part because Vanessa Guillén’s mother, Gloria Guillén, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, though her husband and other family members are U.S. citizens.

The lawyer for the Guillen family, Natalie Khawam, told Univision that the Guillen family is planning to introduce legislation with the support of Trump and several Republican members of Congress, including the powerful Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman, James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Inhofe's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Radical proposal

“Getting the president involved was really the most important part because what we are proposing is so radical,” Khawam said. “Hopefully he’ll say yes, this is what needs to be done,” she added.

The #IamVanessaGuillen bill would remove cases of sexual abuse, including rape and all forms of assault and harassment, from the military justice system and put it under civilian control. It goes further than an existing proposal supported by Democrats, led by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, which would reform the system but with the military retaining control.

Specifically, the Gillibrand bill only covers criminal rape cases, said Khawam, noting that would not have helped Vanessa Guillen. “She was harassed, she wasn’t raped, so she would have been stuck in the military system. Why do you have to be raped to report something?” said Khawam. “This is really a broken system. We have to get the girls out of the military courts,” she added.

Khawam said the White House had raised no issues with the family regarding Gloria Guillen’s immigration status, adding that as the mother of a crime victim she was entitled to a special visa status. Also accompanying her are Vanessa's father, Rogelio Guillen, her grandmother, her sister Lupe and several aunts and uncles.

(UPDATE: Univison has learned that Gloria Guillen was granted a temporary humanitarian Military Parole visa by the Depatment of Homeland Security on Monday due to her daughter's death. The parole will allow her to remain in the United States legally for up to one year.)

An event is being organized Thursday morning at the National Mall in Washington, with virtual appearances from Latino celebrities such as Becky G and Maluma, as well as members of Congress in support of the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill, a draft of legislation to reform the military justice system.

Following the press conference, the family plans to march from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for a meeting with the president.

This is the family’s second trip to Washington, after they made the long drive in early July to demand a congressional investigation into the death of the 20-year-old Army soldier.

Vanessa's death

Guillen's family said she told them she was sexually harassed but did not report it to her superiors for fear of retaliation. Fort Hood investigators said they did not find any evidence she was sexually harassed.

Guillen was killed on Fort Hood by Aaron Robinson April 22, according to the U.S. Army. Robinson, along with his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar dismembered Guillen's body and buried the remains near a river, according to a criminal complaint.

Robinson shot and killed himself July 1. Aguilar was arrested and charged with conspiracy to tamper with evidence.

But some Latino groups are wary of the Trump visit. Among them, is LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) one of the most influential Hispanic organizations in the U.S., which has backed the Guillen family.

While LULAC won't be at the White House meeting, it will be sending representatives to the rally in support of the Guillen family and has met with U.S. Army leaders to press for a full investigation into Vanessa Guillen’s death.

Broken promises

Some are taking a wait and see attitude. “ The president has made all sorts of broken promises to the American people. Will he follow through with any of this?” said Kristian Ramos, former communications director for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and founder of Autonomy Strategies, a media consulting company.

LULAC, together with the Army, recently announced an agreement to rename Fort Hood, with a Latino name. But Trump quickly quashed the idea.

Republicans leaders in Congress have also blocked passage of Gillibrand’s bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, for six years.

“Trump is underwater with Latino voters and he knows he needs to get his numbers up. He is willing to say anything to achieve that, but ultimately his actions will speak louder than words,” said Ramos.

Khawam said she understand the politics surrounding Trump, and his own history of allegations of harassing women, saying she had gotten hate mail and death threats after announcing the White House visit. “I’m just being realistic and doing my job. I can’t have Mickey Mouse sign [the bill]. I need the president to be on board,” she said.

She added that she is representing the family pro bono. “I’m doing this pro because I believe in it,” she said.

A Pentagon spokesperson told Univision that “curbing sexual assault in the armed forces has been among the top priorities." Congressionally-mandated studies found “no evidence” that removing the military from the decision-making process “would reduce the incidence of sexual assault, increase reporting, improve the quality of investigations and prosecutions, or increase the conviction rate,” the spokesperson said.

Critics say those studies are flawed and are not truly independent as those who paticipated were hand-picked by the Pentagon. "They have made it clear they will not welcome anyone who has a contrary viewpoint," said Col Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, who is president of the non-profit group, Protect Our Defenders, which aims to end sexual misconduct in the military.

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Feres Doctrine

The Guillen bill would also for the first time allow military service members to sue for damages for sexual abuse. Under a 70-year-old Supreme Court ruling, known as the Feres Doctrine, members of the U.S. military are not allowed to go to civilian courts to seek justice for injuries suffered while on active duty. That includes injury in combat, but also rape, injury due to negligence.

However, Khawam last year successfully led a congressional challenge to the Feres Doctrine on behalf of a client to pass reform allowing members of the military to sue the Veteran’s Administration for medical malpractice.

Against the odds, Congress passed the malpractice reform in December, despite opposition for some senior Republicans in the Senate.

Having done it once, Khawam says she now believes she can do it again and get military reform for sexual abuse cases. “The military should not be in the business of deciding if something is sexual harassment or assault. They should not be in the business of health. The need to stop trying to do everything,” she said.