Hundreds of survivors are coming forward to share their stories of sexual trauma in the military as details in the alleged murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén reveal that she told her family she had been sexually harassed but was reluctant about alerting her command.
Guillén went missing April 22, and her remains, which were identified over the July 4 weekend, were found roughly 20 miles from Fort Hood, along the Leon River. Since then, military survivors of sexual trauma have taken to social media with the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen to share their stories, citing the soldier’s gruesome death as their motivation for coming forward.
“A dedicated young woman in the military is murdered by a bad guy in the military, and all of the complaints, all of the warning flags were ignored by her command,” former Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, the Tailhook whistleblower, told Military Times. “Then it turns into the possibility of violence. In this case, it turned lethal.”
Coughlin, a CH-53 pilot who was serving as an aide-de-camp to Rear Adm. Jack Snyder was assaulted at the Navy’s annual Tailhook Association Symposium. Her case, which became a national scandal in 1991, was one of the first instances where the military’s inadequate handling of sexual assault cases was made public.
“Her complaints revealed an ugly side to the annual convention for ‘Top Gun’ aviators: 83 women and 7 men were later found to have been assaulted during the raucous party weekend in September 1991,” the New York Times reported. “The resulting scandal forced the resignation of the secretary of the Navy, the censure of several admirals and the enactment of a reform agenda that stressed a ‘zero tolerance’ policy.”
According to Coughlin, the last 30 years have seen some change, but the Defense Department’s attempts to train service members about sexual harassment and assault has proven “a complete failure, and it continues to be a mockery.”
However, she notes, thanks to the hashtag, “now, some of these women and men have the opportunity to say that they have a voice, to explain what happened to them,” Coughlin said.
For former Army Spc. Ashley Martinez, who shared the story of her rape at her first duty station by another soldier on Twitter, what happened to Guillén in the lead up to her death is all too common across the services, though the nature of her attack has spurred survivors to come forward.
“I think it’s really now or never,” Martinez told Military Times. “We see what happened to Vanessa. We see the inconsistencies in the system. We see the lack of accountability. How is it that this girl was missing for more than a month?”
Despite not having intentions of filing any formal charges in her case, Martinez did seek comfort in an an Air Force friend who reported the rape. That decision kicked off a lengthy process for Martinez, which she said led to her chain of command working to discredit her experience, and eventually she withdrew her case. Her experience with the system and the lack of justice ultimately led Martinez to choose to leave the Army.
“I really just thought, ‘Why am I giving my all and working towards a job in a system that does not care about me?’” said Martinez. “I was another statistic. It was my first duty station, I was an enlisted soldier, my attacker was one, two or three ranks above me, and I was overseas. I’m just another statistic. And I felt like just another statistic.”
Martinez decided to come forward with her story using the hashtag, citing the need for people who have experienced this type of trauma to speak out.
“Twitter and Instagram are giving soldiers like me an outlet to come forward,” Martinez said. “I have had five to 10 soldiers in my private messages coming forward to me, that I’ve served with, telling me that they are still uncomfortable with coming forward. What we see online isn’t even the full story either because there are people who are still uncomfortable with coming forward with their stories.”
Despite the hashtag, many survivors have interacted with others privately who have shared their stories, but not publicly. Some are simply not ready, but others fear retribution as they are still on active duty.
Former Navy Chief Petty Officer Jeni Brett, a survivor and anthropologist, noted that part of the reason she felt comfortable sharing her story on Twitter and speaking out about her experience is because she is no longer in the military.
“I don’t really have anyone that is anywhere near me who would disparage me from sharing, but it did end my career,” Brett told Military Times. “I was assaulted, I was retaliated against and I ended up having to retire at 20 years rather than staying in, but I can’t be hurt now, being a civilian and being able to tell my story without military repercussions.”
For Brett, the hashtag marks an important step for survivors of sexual trauma in the military: building a community.
“In a lot of cases, while we were experiencing those things, we felt alone and we felt like we were the only one, and we felt like there was no one there to talk to or to share those experiences,” Brett said. “I feel like the #IAmVanessaGuillen hashtag has really created an another opportunity for community, and I think that’s the most important thing for any person who is experiencing trauma via sexual harassment or sexual violence.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digital Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.