Vanessa Guillén’s Story of Harassment in the Military Is Hardly The First. This Cannot Continue.
“Since the beginning, when I called at the entrance of [Fort Hood], I said I want my daughter back alive. I want her alive because she entered [Fort Hood] alive. Because God forbid my daughter is found dead, I will shut this base down. Muevo cielo, mar y tierra y esta base se cierra. I will move heaven, sea, and earth, and this base will be shut down.”
Gloria Guillén, the mother of 20-year-old Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén, said this in Spanish on June 23. Holding back tears, a combination of anger and sadness in her voice, she addressed a press conference held after her daughter had gone missing.
Less than two weeks later, Guillén’s remains were found in a shallow grave a few miles from where her mother stood pleading for Fort Hood to find her daughter.
Like many of us, I found out about Vanessa’s disappearance on social media. I saw pictures of Vanessa posing in her Army uniform with the pride of someone who knew she wanted to serve in the military since she was ten years old, as her mother tells it. Vanessa proudly wore the uniform of the military branch she swore to respect and protect, yet this branch did not do the same for her.
But as proud as she was of her service, Vanessa had also experienced pain during her time at Fort Hood; She had spoken to her mother, her sisters, her friends, and her fellow soldiers about experiencing sexual harassment from a superior.
Vanessa’s not the only soldier whose branch failed her, either. Thousands of women have dedicated, and are currently dedicating, their lives to protecting our country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, while battling enemies on their own bases. Enemies that are hidden from military women until it is too late. Enemies protected by a bureaucratic system that lies and ignores the pleas for reform from its own service members.
According to the Washington Post, the Department of Defense reported that there were 6,236 sexual assaults recorded in the military last year. Recorded. That is the key word. In 2018, over 20,000 service members experienced sexual assault — an increase of 38% from 2016. How many survivors have been discouraged from speaking out against their assaulters out of fear of retaliation? If you ask me, one is one too many, and Vanessa is already one of thousands.
Since learning Vanessa’s story, brave service women and veterans have shared their stories of sexual assault and harrassment at the hands of fellow soldiers and supervisors. Many of them have stood in solidarity with Vanessa by hashtagging their stories with #IAmVanessaGuillen. To date, there are at least 170,000 tweets under this hashtag.
While the spotlight currently shining on these stories is much-needed, it is not enough to simply highlight these accounts of violence, corruption, and abuse of power via a social media hashtag. Actions must be taken to hold the military, and specifically Fort Hood, accountable for its egregious mishandling of Vanessa’s disappearance. Specifically, we must ask that our elected officials lead an investigation into Vanessa’s murder and the cold cases of other women, like Pfc. LaVena Johnson, who were killed under the military’s watch.
Members of Congress took an oath just like Vanessa, and right now, many of them are failing to keep it. We need more Congress members to stand by Rep. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Jackie Speier, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — all of whom have asked the Department of Defense’s inspector general to conduct an independent investigation into Vanessa’s case. We need legislation that will ensure sexual harassment claims in the military are investigated by a third-party entity, not a base’s chain of command. We must demand that our elected officials protect the lives of the women who bravely serve our country.
We also need a president who will publicly offer condolences to the family of Vanessa Guillén and, as commander in chief, vow to protect all service members from sexual assault and violence. But of course, it is not a coincidence that a president who continuously disrespects the Latinx community and has multiple accusations of sexual misconduct is not speaking up about a Latina who was sexually harassed and murdered in the very country he claims to serve.
We must ask that our government do better by contacting our members of Congress, signing petitions, and electing a president who will ensure that survivors of sexual assault are supported. We cannot let the stories of Vannessa Guillén, LaVena Johnson, and countless other soldiers go unnoticed and, ultimately, forgotten.
We must carry this anger and sadness to the ballot box. We, like Vanessa Guillén’s mother, Gloria, must ask our elected officials to move heaven, sea, and earth to ensure that all women across our country are safe. The misogyny, sexism, and violence against women that exists in the military cannot continue. We must shut it down.
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