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Vanessa Guillen anniversary: a year waiting for answers and a motive

The murder that turned into a national scandal has ignited the debate over sexual abuse in the military. Univision visited Fort Hood to see new, preventive measures the Army is taking to educate and protect its soldiers. But the family of Vanessa Guillen remain deeply skeptical of those efforts and is pushing for military justice reform in Congress. (Leer es español)
22 Abr 2021 – 10:18 AM EDT
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Sitting in her backyard in front of a large painting of her daughter, Gloria Guillen, speaks softly about the 20-year-old soldier she lost a year ago, hoping that her death was not in vain.

"My daughter was special. And, that's what gives me satisfaction to say my daughter was chosen among those chosen to save other young women," she told Univision in a two-hour interview late last month.

"If it hadn't been for my daughter's death, everything would be the same. Deaths, more killing at Fort Hood, harassment, rapes, murders," she added.

One year after the murder of Vanessa Guillen her family is still looking for answers while also taking on a bigger cause of the civil rights of soldiers and changing how sexual harassment complaints are investigated in the military.

Members of Guillen’s family will mark the moment she was killed on Thursday at a public event in Washington DC, followed by a candlelight vigil.

The family is also scheduled to meet Friday with top Pentagon officials for the first time since Vanessa’s death, to get an update on new preventive measures being adopted by the military to eliminate sexual abuse in the ranks.

“It has been one year, yet no answers and no motive,” Lupe Guillen, Vanessa’s 17-year-old sister told Univision. “At the same time, we are seeing progress, but not all the progress we hoped for,” she added.

Outrage

Her disappearance April 22, 2020, sparked outrage and protests outside the gates of Fort Hood, in hopes of finding the missing soldier. It wasn’t until more than two months later, June 30th, that her burned and dismembered body was found.

Guillen’s death has brought unprecedented scrutiny and public attention to a shocking pattern of almost systematic sexual abuse in the military. In December an independent review found a "permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment," at Fort Hood.

The Pentagon has since fired or suspended 14 officers at the base. including Maj. Gen. Scott L. Efflandt, the acting Fort Hood commander at the time of Guillén’s death.

But for the Guillen family that’s not nearly enough.

“People think firing 14 leaders from Fort Hood is justice. You have to hold the whole leadership accountable because they are responsible for my sister,” said Lupe Guillen.
Investigators say Guillen was murdered by another soldier, Specialist Aaron Robinson, who then tried to dispose of her remains. Robinson killed himself with a pistol as he was approached by police. officials said.

Cecily Aguilar, the girlfriend of Robinson, was later arrested and charged with helping Robinson “mutilate and dispose” of Guillen’s body. She has pleaded not guilty.

An on-going investigation was opened into the handling of her disappearance and murder and legislation was introduced in Congress in September last year that would change how sexual harassment complaints are investigated in the military.

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#IamVanessaGuillen bill

Congress failed to debate the #IamVanessaGuillen bill before the end of the year, allowing the legislation to die. But it is scheduled to be reintroduced on May 13, according to its sponsor, California congresswoman, Jackie Speier.

The bill would require that sexual harassment complaints involving service members be handled by an independent military investigator outside the chain of command of the accused, as well as permitting victims to sue for damages in civil court.


“All these soldiers are serving with no protections and rights,” said the Guillen family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, who specializes in legal cases involving the military.
“It’s not going to stop until their rights and protections are put in place. The only way is through legislation,” she added.

“These soldiers would take a bullet for their country, but they are afraid to report harassment and revictimization by a system that is broken. That’s how bad it is,” she added.

Honoring Vanessa's memory

On Monday, the Guillén family kicked off a week of events honoring Vanessa by attending the naming of an entrance gate at Fort Hood in her honor. The family also attended meetings in the Texas state capitol, Austin, to name a highway after her, as well as honoring her birthday in September.

The gate leads to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment where Guillén served.

Lt. Gen. Pat White, commanding general of III Corps and Fort Hood, said at the ceremony that the gate was intended to serve as a reminder that in the future “we haven't forgotten what this is all about, what this moment is all about in our history.”

Lupe Guillen said the family was encouraged by the guilty verdict in the George Floyd murder case. “I feel that there is more justice in the world, people are being held accountable,” she said.

But she said getting justice in “the military world” was even harder, pointing out that Floyd was killed May 25, 2020, more than a month after Vanessa Guillen. “Soldiers don’t have the right to speak up on issues like racism and sexual abuse. That’s why we are moving so slowly because it’s the military,” she said.

President Joe Biden is also seen as an ally of women’s equality. In a statement in December, 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.

Army measures: 'People First'

The Army has announced a series of measures to implement the recommendations of the Fort Hood report, including re-structuring the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) and redesigning the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program.

During a three-day visit to Fort Hood, Univision journalists saw some of the steps being taken under a year-long ‘Operation People First’, in which commanders set aside time every month to get to know their soldiers better. Guillen’s unit, the 3 rd Cavalry Regiment, canceled a major training exercise in California in January in order for leaders to reconnect with their soldiers.

Soldiers are also being given special sexual abuse awareness workshops, including recreating scenarios such as bars, barracks and gyms.

Despite promoting People First, military leaders still have a hard time accepting blame for Guillen’s death.

“With the Vanesa Guillen case not necessarily anything would have changed, turned out different. The military leaders and myself included, we've always been about ‘People First’. We didn't get away from it, we just wanted to focus a little bit more on it,” the 3rd Cavalry’s Command Sergeant Major, Shade Munday, told Univision.

Skeptics warn that the Army still has a long way to go to stamping out the toxic and harassing command cultures that allow for sexual abuse to occur. 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.

Just 27 percent of sexual assault survivors file official reports with their chains of command, according to a recent Rand Corp. study, and the fear of retaliation may play a huge factor. Of those surveyed, 31 percent of men and 28 percent of women said they experienced retaliation after a sexual assault, whether they reported the incident or not.

The report also found that exposure to sexual assault in the U.S. military doubled the odds that a service member would leave the military within 28 months.

'Know Your Rights'

The advocacy group for victims of abuse in the military, Protect Our Defenders (POD), this week launched 'Know Your Rights', a new resource which details how survivors can seek help and what rights are afforded to them throughout the military justice process. The idea was born out of a realization that many survivors were either unaware of their rights or deliberately misled by a flawed military justice system.

“It’s clear the military justice system, and the way victims are treated, needs major reform,” said Col. Don Christensen.

Vanessa’s mother, for one, says the Army can do much better. "The most powerful army in the world, what power? Because they have nuclear weapons, because they have everything, because they have millions? That's not the Army. You have to defend and take care of your soldiers and protect them," Gloria Guillen told Univision.

"All those commanders, generals, I don't care how many stars they have, I don't respect those uniforms. I respect her (Vanessa's) uniform. It's the only one I respect," she added.

Painful as it is, Lupe Guillen, who balances high school with supporting her mother, is anxious to mark the anniversary of her sister’s death. “It’s important that we acknowledge what happened on April 22. I can’t even imagine what my sister went through. It’s going to frustrating. Its going to be sad. It’s going to be emotional for all of us,” she said.

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“A part of me died:” rampant sexual violence in the military and the hope for change
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