As an investigation into the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén continues, service members and veterans take to social media to share stories of sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military.
Under the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, users call for justice for Guillén and an end to what her family and advocates call an "epidemic" of sexual violence in the armed services.
“The #IamVanessaGuillen hashtag, I think, is really the first time that military men and women have felt empowered to speak out. The military hasn’t had their #MeToo movement yet, until now," said Col. Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military. “The fear of retaliation has silenced too many survivors, and I think this could be a potential sea change that breaks down the resistance of the generals and admirals who want to continue with the status quo.”
Guillén, 20, a Houston native who worked at Fort Hood, went missing in April near the Texas military base. Her body was identified Sunday night after human remains were found June 30, according to her family's attorney. Federal and military investigators said she was killed and dismembered by a fellow soldier who took his own life last week. Cecily Aguilar, 22, a civilian, was arrested and charged with allegedly helping hide the body, according to a criminal complaint.
Guillén’s family, joined by friends and others in the Killeen, Texas, community, demanded justice and a thorough search for the missing soldier. Those efforts gained national, and even some international, attention in the past months.
The family maintained that Guillén was sexually harassed by a superior at Fort Hood. Attorney Natalie Khawam said this supervisor was Aaron David Robinson, the man officials suspect in Guillén’s disappearance.
Mayra Guillén said last week that her sister spoke with their mother about experiencing sexual harassment and being afraid during her time at Fort Hood.
I was 22. I never reported it for fear of backlash. Why would I, when the most they did for another girl who reported a different person was ask her if she led him on?#IAMVANESSAGUILLEN pic.twitter.com/EbyOo8R7me
— Karina @ KEEP FIGHTING (@BigTofuu) July 1, 2020
Army officials said there is no evidence linking sexual harassment to Guillén's disappearance, and they invited a team to the post to inspect its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP.
The family said the two are intertwined and called for a congressional investigation.
Sunday, Khawam said sexual harassment in the military is an "epidemic" and demanded attention from Congress.
“You can’t turn a blind eye anymore," she said.
Khawam and Christensen were angered by Fort Hood's response and handling of the investigation.
“The Army’s number one concern was about damage control to them versus helping Vanessa Guillén and helping her family,” Christensen said. “Vanessa’s family has said that she told them she was being sexually harassed, and [then] she’s murdered. … For the Army to say, ‘Well, there’s no credible evidence that she was sexually harassed’ is just the dismissive attitude that they show time and again when confronted with sexual harassment. ... It’s just another clarion call why we need to really reform the military process for handling these cases."
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On social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, military members and veterans used #IamVanessaGuillen to offer support to the Guillén family and share their own stories of sexual assault while in uniform.
I just turned 20. I wasn’t even done with training when I was assaulted.
I reported. He confessed and 4 other women came forward. He was acquitted. Two E8 jury members laughed in my face after giving the “not guilty” verdict. He got a promotion. I got PTSD. pic.twitter.com/N9BFfo6Mtb
— ~ d ~ (@mf_p0tat0) July 1, 2020
Many recounted being raped by a superior, sometimes being drugged or abused in their own bunks at night. Several were young, some saying they had just finished training.
Vanessa Guillen deserves justice.
And every victim of sexual harassment and assault in the military, deserves justice.
We stand with you @RepSylviaGarcia and her family in your call for an independent investigation. https://t.co/HxLO5Mhyw1
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 5, 2020
Others said they were threatened with the destruction of their military career if they tried to report.
All stressed that what the family alleges about Guillén's experience is not unique. And that change is overdue.
— sadie strong (@sadie1107) July 1, 2020
The U.S. military said it's devoted to preventing sexual harassment and assault, as it noted in its 2019 fiscal year report. Yet the number of survivors of sexual assault has remained steady or increased in some years.
Reports of sexual assault in the military increased 3% in 2019, the Department of Defense reported in April as part of an annual survey. A more comprehensive survey on sexual assault was released last year. That report, usually done every other year, is based on detailed surveys of troops. It found a 38% increase in assaults from 2016 to 2018 after years of focused effort and resources to eradicate such incidents.
“The numbers are appalling, they’re getting worse. The chain of command has for 30 plus years claimed that they were going to solve it, but instead of solving it, they have exacerbated the problem," Christensen said. "At the end of the day, very few offenders are held accountable. ... We know that there were over 20,000 sexual assaults involving active-duty men and women in 2019, but of those, only 138 were actually ever convicted of sexual assault.”
I served active duty as a jet mechanic.
The men who sexually assaulted me are still serving in uniform today.
STATISTICALLY you are more likely to get raped by someone in the same uniform as you than you are to be shot at by the enemy. Read that again.
— SheCow✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 (@She__Cow) June 30, 2020
"Of women who reported a penetrative sexual assault, 59% were assaulted by someone with a higher rank than them, and 24% were assaulted by someone in their chain of command," the report said.
The findings show that retaliation is all too common. A third of those who reported assaults were discharged, typically within seven months.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who served in the Army for 17 years, spoke at a Guillén family news conference last week. She said that although changes have been made over the years, they're not enough.
There’s a reason #IAmVanessaGuillen has flooded our feeds — it’s because the US military has silenced, assaulted, murdered and disappeared women since we were first allowed in the ranks.
My heart breaks for Vanessa and her family. Enough is ENOUGH.
— Brielle (@brihold) July 1, 2020
"We stand here for Vanessa, we stand here for justice, we stand here for every other service member who's experienced sexual harassment or assault and did not feel safe reporting it out of fear for retaliation," Gabbard said.
Other legislators demanded a congressional investigation.
Christensen said there's bipartisan support for change.
“You have two ends of the political spectrum that have acknowledged ... that the process isn’t working and needs to be reformed," he said.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY; Heather Osbourne, Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vanessa Guillen's death spotlights sexual assault, harassment in military