Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault and murder.
That’s what best friends Vanessa, Evelyn, Frida and Jocelyn were known as. Where one would go, the other would follow. In high school, they all ran track together.
Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen was last seen in the parking lot of her barracks at Fort Hood in April. She had planned to file a sexual harassment claim against Spc. Aaron David Robinson, who reportedly murdered Guillen with a hammer. When approached by investigators, Robinson shot himself and died. On July 14, a federal grand jury indicted Cecily Aguilar with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence and two counts of tampering with evidence. Court records say Robinson told Aguilar he killed a female soldier and the two disposed of her body.
“Vanessa didn’t sign up for this war,” activist Lizza Monet Morales said in a recent phone call.
A systemic problem
The Defense Department estimates 20,500 instances of “some kind of contact or penetrative sexual assault occurred in 2018.” This is an increase of over 5,000 since 2016. Only one in three were found to have reported their sexual assault to a Defense Department authority.
Statistically, Guillen’s story is reflected by thousands of service members. On June 19, the power of the internet confirmed this with a viral post by Karina Lopez, who shared her own military sexual trauma experience with the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen.
“I know this story isn’t about me but I just want you and your family to know that you were not alone and we understand why you were so scared to come forward,” Lopez wrote. “I did and no one helped me.”
In a November 12 panel on military sexual trauma for Minority Veterans of America, Lopez discussed her decision to post. She initially brought her story to the media, but no one agreed to cover her story. When she saw posters of Guillen, Lopez knew she had to do something. She didn’t expect much of a response, but suddenly her DMs were blowing up. Women close to her had similar stories. Men had stories too, admitting they were intimidated and didn’t know how to come forward.
“For the longest time…. I thought this was my fault,” Lopez said. “[This] showed me there is a bigger problem.”
The panelists acknowledged women, but especially women of color, are disproportionately affected by military sexual trauma. Lopez could affirm first hand.
“It was very easy for them to belittle me when they knew about my background,” she explained, noting her prideful Dominican and Puerto Rican identity. “I felt like I couldn’t talk to my family about what was going on because I felt so ashamed… I didn’t know how to fight for myself anymore.”
Erin Kirk-Cuomo elaborated that sexual harassment and assault is rampant across all branches of service. Kirk-Cumono, a co-founder of advocacy organization Not in My Marine Corps., highlighted the need for policy and culture change. A veteran herself, she pointed out one specific problem with the Marines: men and women are separated at boot camp.
“That is not how you build up a force that is inclusive,” she said.
Honoring Vanessa with real change
On September 16, the I am Vanessa Guillen Act of 2020 (H.R. 8270) was introduced, which aims to take sexual assault and harassment investigations out of the military chain of command.
Documentation on the bill explains that “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 nature of the killing… is one that haunts me,” Rep. Jackie Speier said over the phone, who sponsors the bill.
Today would have been Vanessa's 21st birthday. Instead, her family & our country mourns her loss. I've retraced her last steps & seen where she drew her last breath. Congress must pass my bill, the #iamvanessaguillen Act, to honor her memory & thousands of survivors like her! pic.twitter.com/DkHOAjpBlo
— Jackie Speier (@RepSpeier) September 30, 2020
Speier is a representative from California who has been working for over 10 years on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Looking at the 20,500 cases in 2018, she explained only 5,800 were actually reported due to lack of faith in the system. Only about 1 percent of reported assailants are actually convicted.
“The military’s reluctance to look at this issue seriously has been, I think, a serious flaw in the institution,” she said. “It is a not so subtle message that you’re going to get away with it.”
When confronted last year with the troubling numbers, the Marine Corps. said in a statement to the New York Times that “sexual assault erodes the trust and cohesion within the Marine Corps team, degrades our lethality and readiness, and is incompatible with our core values of honor, courage and commitment. In the end, this is an issue of trust— trust that fellow Marines will look out for each other.”
The I am Vanessa Guillen Act has reinvigorated the cause for change. It has sweeping bi-partisan support from 154 democrats and 26 republicans. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi committed to take action before the end of the year.
Passing the baton
Like much of the nation, actor and activist Lizza Monet Morales was taken aback by Guillen’s story. With her expert skills in livestreaming and community organizing, she knew she had to take action. Morales and friends came together to produce a 4-hour livestream event just as the bill was getting ready to be presented in DC. In event development, it was important to respect mother Gloria Guillen’s wishes to not appropriate her daughter’s likeness. Morales understood; she herself is a “sur-thriver,” a thriving survivor.
“It was amazing to see how much of not only the audience, but these fellow survivors really connected with this story and felt seen by the hashtag,” Morales said. In addition to the 12 military survivors (men and women), the event featured a spoken word artist and Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro.
Morales committed to helping uplift Guillen’s story and became close with the family. She even helped plan the memorial, taking into account from sister Mayra Guillen that she wanted Vanessa to have a princess good-bye. Also knowing how important track was to Guillen, Morales (with the blessing of Mayra and her other sister, Lupe) gave the family a final surprise.
“[We] ended up giving Vanessa and her family one last victory lap around the track with her body and the horse and carriage,” Morales said. “My hope is that with this bill, Vanessa might not have been the first, but she’ll be the last.”