Women veterans advocates rallied on Capitol Hill Tuesday to call for systemic changes in how sexual harassment and abuse claims are handled by the military in the wake of the killing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, saying her story has become too common in the ranks.
“The Army was her dream. That dream was shattered because the Army failed to keep her safe,” said Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas. “They failed to meet the very basic bargain between the armed services and our young men and women who enlist.
“We have to make sure this never happens again.”
Army officials have said Guillen, 20, was killed on Fort Hood in Texas on April 22 by a fellow male soldier. He and his girlfriend buried Guillen’s body off base, where it lay hidden until late last month.
The girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, faces charges connected to covering up the slaying. Spc. Aaron Robinson took his own life when confronted by law enforcement officials earlier this month.
Family members have said Guillen reported multiple instances of sexual harassment to them, but filed no official complaints because of a lack of trust that leadership would do anything to address the problem.
Women who spoke at Tuesday’s event outside of the Capitol said that’s a common complaint among troops and veterans, one that has ruined careers and lives.
“This all too familiar nightmare must stop,” said Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America. “Vanessa’s life mattered. Vanessa’s dream mattered. And Vanessa’s family’s calls for justice matter.”
Natalie Khawam, the attorney for Guillen’s family, said they will meet with President Donald Trump on July 29 to discuss potential legislative fixes they are supporting. In addition, Army officials have announced plans for a civilian-lead investigation into “command climate and culture” at Fort Hood.
But lawmakers and advocates have asked for more. They want a broader examination of the base, the service and the military as a whole, as well as significant changes in how such cases are investigated and prosecuted.
“For those who want to make the military a career, reporting (harassment) is a career-ending act,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “For years we have thrown millions of dollars at the problem. The results haven’t changed. They’re only getting worse.”
Lawmakers have proposed several adjustments in the annual defense authorization bill winding through the House and Senate this week, including a provision to create an independent prosecutor for sexual assault cases at the military academies. Whether that idea will survive congressional negotiations in coming weeks is unclear.
In April, the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reported a 10 percent increase in sexual harassment cases from 2018 to 2019 and a 3 percent increase in sexual assault cases. But officials believe those figures still severely undercount the problem.
Melissa Bryant, an Army veteran and one of the organizers of Tuesday’s rally, said Guillen’s death should serve as a wake-up call to the entire military and veterans community about weak policies on harassment that “have forced us to live in a daily hell” while serving the country.
“We are here to say that her death is not in vain,” she said. “The time to act is now to reform our military justice system.”
Reporter Kyle Rempfer contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.