Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would dramatically reform how the U.S. military handles the reports, investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault and harassment in honor of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, an alleged victim of sexual harassment who was murdered at Fort Hood, Texas.
Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Armed Services Military subcommittee on Personnel, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., hosted a press conference on Capitol Hill to introduce the bipartisan "I am Vanessa Guillen Act."
Reps. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas; John Carter, R-Texas; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; Pete Olson, R-Texas; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Troy Balderson, R-Ohio; Gilbert Cisneros Jr., D-Calif.; and Will Hurd, R-Texas, also supported the new legislation, which would require independent investigations into reports of sexual harassment and assault and create special prosecutors to try cases instead of the victim's chain of command.
Guillen's case has ignited a surge of support from lawmakers, like Speier, who have worked for years to hold the Pentagon more accountable for sexual assault and harassment continuing in the ranks.
Guillen, a 20-year-old 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier who disappeared April 22, was allegedly murdered by Spc. Aaron Robinson on Fort Hood, before her body was smuggled to a remote site off post.
Natalie Khawam, an attorney representing Guillen's family, has alleged that Robinson sexually harassed Guillen. Fort Hood and Army Criminal Investigation Command officials maintain that there is no credible evidence that Guillen was the victim of sexual harassment.
The Army has sent a team of independent investigators to Fort Hood to evaluate the command climate at the large Texas post. Army Forces Command also appointed Gen. Mike Murray, the head of Army Future Command, to lead a separate investigation into the chain of command's actions related to Guillen.
Speier said it is "unacceptable" that Guillen fell victim to this tragic fate while serving her country.
"We are not going to tolerate this anymore," said Speier, who has said that Guillen's case has become a rallying cry for survivors of military sexual harassment and assault. "Voices of these survivors have never been louder or more clear."
Garcia was one of many lawmakers who accused the Army and leaders at Fort Hood of failing Guillen when she needed help.
"Enough is enough," she said. "This must never happen again."
If signed into law, the bill would require each service to establish an Office of the Chief Prosecutor to ensure that charging decisions for sex-related offenses are no longer the responsibility of soldiers' chains of command.
Commanders are primarily responsible for the military readiness of their units and may be "concerned with the professional reputation of their units and the impacts a public court-martial may have on that reputation," according to a document explaining the new legislation.
"Leaving prosecution decisions to the commander creates a conflict of interest and may discourage survivors from reporting an assault, especially in cases where a toxic command environment contributed to a climate where sexual violence is tolerated," the document states.
The legislation supports a recommendation made by the Department of Defense to establish a standalone article under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for sexual harassment "to send a clear message to the force that such behavior is unacceptable and may result in severe consequences," it adds.
The legislation would also require the services to create a process for conducting independent investigations into sexual harassment allegations using trained investigators.
Currently, the military uses command investigations for sexual harassment allegations against military service members.
"The investigation is typically conducted by another service member in the unit who has little or no training or experience in investigating sexual harassment," the document states. "Because sexual harassment is most common in a command environment that tolerates that behavior, internal command investigators are particularly problematic."
Lawmakers say that "abysmal reporting rates" by victims prove that many service members don't trust their commands to address their harassment.
The legislation would also establish a confidential reporting option for sexual harassment that would allow a victim to file a confidential report with a Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program official that is not seen by the commander but have the option to file a formal complaint at any time, according to the document.
Guillen's remains were not discovered until early July, which has prompted senior Army officials to consider how the service initially treats missing soldiers.
The new legislation would require the Government Accountability Office to study procedures used by the services to respond to missing service members and make recommendations to improve these procedures.
The GAO review would be required to cover current guidelines for "distinguishing between common cases and cases that might involve foul play in which the service member may be in danger," according to the document.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.