‘This can’t happen anymore’: A year after Vanessa Guillen’s death, family demands legislation

(WASHINGTON) — It has been one year since Army specialist Vanessa Guillen was last seen alive at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas.

On the anniversary of her death, her family gathered in Washington, D.C., to push members of Congress to pass a bill to reform the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment allegations.

Guillen, 20, was allegedly killed by another solder at the Killeen, Texas, base on April 22, 2020. Her family says she told them she’d been sexually harassed by a sergeant months before her death.

“Young men and women … they’re not afraid to take a bullet for our country but they’re afraid to report sexual harassment,” Natalie Khawam, the Guillen family’s lawyer, said at a press conference in Washington Thursday. “This can’t happen anymore. If we don’t have legislation, [if we don’t have] the I Am Vanessa Guillen bill passed, we’re just going to see more deaths in our military. Young men and women serving our country need to be protected.”

California Rep. Jackie Speier was originally expected to re-introduce the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act on Thursday. The bill was first introduced last September in a previous session of Congress but was never voted on.

Khawam said Speier would wait for a report from an Independent Review Commission requested by President Joe Biden to investigate sexual assault in the Army. The report is slated to be released in May.

The bill seeks to create an independent system where service members can safely report sexual misconduct cases without fear of retaliation and move prosecution decisions out of the chain of command. It would also make sexual harassment a punishable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Guillen’s sisters, Mayra and Lupe, gave emotional speeches Thursday, urging Congress to pass the bill.

“It takes a lot for us to be here today after demanding justice after a whole year,” Mayra said. “All I ask for today is please don’t forget her name. Don’t forget the story.”

Lupe cried during her statement and said her tears were out of “frustration.”

“Every day she was putting her life, thousands of men and women are putting their lives at risk, simply for this nation. What does the nation give them? No rights,” Lupe said. “They don’t have the right to file a complaint outside the chain of command. They don’t have the right to speak up. My sister couldn’t speak up because she was afraid of retaliation.”

She added, “The problem is not the aggressor — it’s the system, because the system does not hold them accountable.”

Guillen’s death triggered a sexual assault reckoning in the U.S. Army and prompted the “I Am Vanessa Guillen” movement where military members opened up about sexual assault during their service.

Guillen was allegedly killed by Spc. Aaron Robinson. He allegedly bludgeoned her to death with a hammer in an arms room, Khawam said last year. Robinson took his own life when police confronted him on July 1, 2020, hours after Guillen’s remains were discovered.

Only one person has been arrested in her death, Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar. According to a criminal complaint against her, she told police she helped Robinson dispose of Guillen’s body. She faces up to 20 years in federal prison for one charge of conspiracy to tamper with documents or proceedings and two charges of tampering with documents or proceedings. In July, her lawyer entered not guilty pleas on her behalf.

On Monday, Army officials dedicated a gate at Fort Hood in Guillen’s honor.

“I want current and future soldiers to understand the impact of what we’re doing here today,” Lt. Gen. Pat White, III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general, said. “It’s mostly so in two, three, four years, we haven’t forgotten what this is all about, what this moment is about in our history.”

A vigil will also be held at 6:30 p.m. ET at the Vanessa Guillen Mural in Washington.

In Texas, state lawmakers have introduced several bills in honor of Guillen.

Senate Bill 623, which seeks to create a state sexual offense prevention and response program and coordinator for Texas military forces, passed in the Texas Senate with an unanimous vote of 31-0 on April 12. The bill now sits with the Texas House Committee on Defense & Veterans’ Affairs.

Other bills are seeking to rename a part of State Highway 3 after Guillen and make her Sept. 30 birthday a state holiday.

In December, the Army announced 14 senior leaders and enlisted personnel at Fort Hood were fired or suspended following an independent panel’s review of the command climate and culture at the base.

“The investigation after Vanessa Guillen’s murder found Fort Hood has a command climate that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said.

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