When the family of murdered Fort Hood soldier, Vanessa Guillen, were looking for legal help they heard about a female lawyer in Florida who had a reputation for taking on the military.
“It was another victim recommended her,” said Lupe Guillen, Vanessa’s 16-year-old sister. “The military is a big challenge, but she did it,” she added.
When they finally spoke by phone the Florida attorney, Natalie Khawam, agreed to take on the case for free, or ‘pro bono’ in legal parlance.
“Wow! For free, are you serious?” said Lupe Guillen, speaking by phone from Washington hours after the family met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office to seek justice for Vanessa and other victims of sexual abuse in the military. “That’s why every day I say to myself, ‘Thanks to God, to my parents, to my family and to Natalie, because they are the ones by my side, fighting for justice.”
Khawam, 45, who now represents the Guillen family, is no stranger to taking on the U.S. military. Some of her clients describe her as a trailblazer who is not intimidated by going up against the might of the U.S. military and decades-old legal doctrine that protects the Armed Forces from civilian law.
“Natalie Khawam you rock! … You are one BAD ASS LAWYER!!!” one fan, Los Angeles social worker, Mayra Infante, wrote on her website this week in response to the White House visit.
Other observers are less convinced about her decision to visit the White House, noting that Trump has a poor record on women’s issues, while they give her credit for putting the Guillen family’s tragedy in the national spotlight.
“I do think it’s important to get behind the Guillen’s family. However, the strategy of meeting with the president is questionable given this administration’s terrible record of defending victims,” said Diana Ramirez, with the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “How fruitful that is going to be remains to be seen, but we obviously hope for the best,” she added.
Guillen was killed on Fort Hood April 22 by another soldier, and her body was then dismembered and buried near a river, according to a criminal complaint. Her killer later shot and killed himself.
The Guillen family suspects others were involved and fears the chain of command may be covering up allegations of sexual harassment. The case has exposed a culture of sexual abuse in the military, with tens of thousands of victims reported annually, according to the Pentagon’s own estimates.
On Thursday Trump promised a full investigation of the case and personally offered to cover the family’s funeral expenses.
A Lebanese immigrant who arrived in the country aged one, Khawam grew up in Philadelphia where her parents owned a Middle Eastern restaurant, Sahara.
A graduate of law from Georgetown University she also has experience in healthcare having worked in the Office of the General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
And far from being an instrument of a White House scheme to win over Latino voters, Khawam says she has little interest in the political machinations the Guillen case has attracted.
In 2005 she organized a ‘liberal lunch’ for half a dozen top lawyers at a Capitol Hill restaurant, attended by David Cole, the national director for the American Civil Liberties Union and Abbe Lowell, the high profile criminal defense lawyer who has represented some high profile clients, including U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat.
At the time of that lunch, Khawam was still only an unknown Georgetown University law school student. As a sign of her persistence and bold tactics, she also invited Ralph Nader, the consumer protection activist and former presidential candidate for the Green Party. To her surprise he accepted, after she raised her Lebanese roots, mentioning that her grandfather was a patriarch in the Syrian Catholic church.
“When Mr Nader arrived he told everyone, ‘You are looking at a great lawyer in the making. She knew exactly how to get me here,’” she recalled. As a present, Khawam says Nader gave her his mother’s handwritten Lebanese cookbook, which she now treasures.
Khawam has also partnered on cases with Debra Katz, the Washington-based civil rights and whistleblower attorney who represented Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychology professor who in 2018 testified against then Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accusing him of sexually assaulting her.
In an email, Katz told Univision that Khawam “is a tenacious advocate for her clients. She will fight to ensure that the truth is laid bare and that justice is done.”
Her early career was marred by a bitter divorce and custody battle in 2011, as well as bankruptcy. A judge gave her ex-husband sole custody of the couple's son after rejecting her claims of domestic violence during their brief one-year marriage.
The divorce achieved further notoriety a year later when an infidelity scandal was revealed involving then-CIA director David Petraeus. While Khawam had no direct role in the scandal, it emerged that Petraeus wrote a letter to the judge supporting Khawam's appeal for custody of the boy. Khawam and her family had befriended Petraeus at local social functions while he was stationed at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa.
In 2018, Khawam was reprimanded by the Florida Bar for charging a client excessive fees. She put the reprimand down to the combination of a disgrunted client and an office oversight.
Khawam made far happier headlines last year when she successfully challenged a 70-year-old Supreme Court ruling, known as the Feres Doctrine, which protects the U.S. Armed Forces from being sued in civilian court for injuries suffered by members of the military while on active duty.
In a historic victory, Khawam worked closely with Republicans in Congress to pass a reform late last year creating an exception to the Feres Doctrine to allow members of the military to sue the Veteran’s Administration for medical malpractice.
The reform stemmed from the case of one of Khawam’s client, Army Special Forces officer Richard Stayskal, who claims doctors at a Fort Bragg medical center in North Carolina, failed to notify him of a cancer lurking in his lungs. Doctors detected a tumor during a routine exam in 2017, but inexplicably said nothing, according to his court case.
The cancer spread before Stayskal was able to get proper treatment. He has since been diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer.
His mother found Khawam while researching her son’s legal options and being rejected by other lawyers who said there was nothing they could do because of the Feres Doctrine. “Natalie got fired up and said we have to fix this,” Stayskal told Univision in a phone interview.
“When you are going against the military, it’s such a great, big enterprise, you need someone like Natalie,” he said. “Throughout the process there were a million and one different ways she could have dropped out. But she never gave up and kept finding a way around things,” he added.
Army Captain Jessica Purcell, 37, heard about Khawam’s challenge to the Feres Doctrine when she was also going through chemotherapy after her breast cancer was misdiagnosed while stationed at MacDill in Tampa.
"She’s like the trail blazer for this,” Purcell told Univision by phone, adding that she also suffered sexual abuse while serving in Afghanistan in 2013. "She genuinely cares about our service members and wants to help. It gives me some hope,” added Purcell, who has undergone several surgeries and was also diagnosed with terminal stage 4 cancer.
Purcell and Stayskal both filed malpractice lawsuits against the military this year as a result of the change in the law.
“I applaud her courage. It takes a lot of gumption and fortitude to take on a system like the Pentagon,” said Major Dwight Stirling, a prosecutor in the California National Guard, who also teaches law at the University of Southern California and is and an expert on the Feres Doctrine.
“What she has is a savviness, she knows military law and she knows how to walk the halls of Congress. And she has an in with Trump,” said Stirling, who also advocates for stronger legal protection for those serving in the military.
“I know there are people who look at her style and think it’s all about her and the advancement of her career. While some of that may be true, it takes people like that sometimes,” he said. “Her mentality is one of the underdog. She sees people who are powerful, especially powerful men, who are taking advantage of the weak and the marginalized,” he added.
At the White House on Thursday, the Guillen family asked Trump to help them find out the truth about Vanessa' death. They also asked him put his support behind their legislative efforts.
The Guillen family never thought twice about accepting the opportunity to state their case to Trump, Lupe Guillen told Univision. “To be honest, I never thought my voice would be heard by the president. Hopefully he takes action and he supports our bill,” she said.
“Facing the military is a big challenge, but you have to do what you have to do to change the policy. Vanessa always used to tell me ‘Ignore the negativity, just go for it,’ she went on. "I explained that one time to Natalie, like she and her have the same thing. She (Natalie) started crying and she said to me, ‘I wish I could have met her,'” she added.
Activists working with the Guillen family, say they really don’t care about the political lens. “History happens regardless of who is in office. If the president was a Democrat people would say it is a political ploy too,” said AnaLuisa Tapia, the central Texas director for LULAC, (the League of United Latin American Citizens), who traveled to Washington to support the family on Friday.
“When somebody gets sexually assaulted, it doesn’t matter if the victim is Democrat or Republican. There are a lot of victims out there and we have to speak up for them. That’s what Natalie is doing,” she added.
"My goal it to win"
Khawam's aggresive approach has ruffled feathers in Congress, leaving some staffers questioning her motives and alleged publicity-seeking. However, they also credit her with being able to break through congressional deadlock.
Brushing off criticism that she played along with the White House on Thursday, she responds that she is not interested in politics. “I don’t care about anyone’s agenda. I just do whatever it takes for my client. My goal is to win,” she added.
Support in Congress seems to be growing in favor of the military reform promoted by the Guillén family. On Saturday, the office of congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, confirmed to Univision that it is working with Khawam and the Guillen family, together with a bipartisan group of members of Congress on a military sexual abuse bill in honor of Vanessa.
Texas Congressowoman, Sylvia Garcia , who represents the Houston district where the Guillen family lives, also told Univision that the White House visit made strategic sense. “I’m glad the President made time to meet with my constituents, the Guillén family. Any time anyone is able to get in front of the President, it helps bring attention to their issue," said Garcia, who helped lead Democrat's eforts to impeach Trump last year.
"I hope to see the President follow up his words at this meeting with action,” she added.
The bill, which is still being drafted in Congress, would remove sexual abuse cases from the military chain of command. It would also create a new exception to the Feres Doctrine to allow civil lawsuits against the Army for negligence in cases of sexual abuse.
"There is a path, but we got a long road ahead of us," said Markwayne Mullin, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, who has worked closely with Khawam on the bill. "Natalie is very tenacious. She doesn't take 'no' for an answer," he added.
"If they are willing to want to work with us, we welcome that. We are talking about a family with a dead daughter," said Khawam. "We need bipartisan support and we need to put politics aside so everyone can be a winner," she added.