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#IAmVanessaGuillen: Fort Hood soldier's story of sexual harassment shines light on rampant problem in the military

Posted at 8:04 PM, Jul 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-06 17:21:09-04

Pfc. Vanessa Guillen told family and friends that she was being harassed by her superior on post days before her disappearance.

Her story has since sparked a growing movement online that's shining a light on how rampant sexual assault and harassment are in the military.

The #IAmVanessaGuillen is filled with thousands of posts from soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors alike sharing their story from their time in the service. The one common thread between them- sexual assault and harassment.

Vanessa Guillen dreamed of being in the military since she was 10-years-old. The Houston native wanted better opportunities and to help her parents, but her dream quickly became a nightmare.

"She signed that contract with the Army to protect and serve the country. Yet look how they treated her, like if she was nothing," said Lupe Guillen, her sister.

In the days before her disappearance, the 20-year-old told friends, family and even fellow soldiers on post that she was being harassed by her superior.

"She was taking a shower. She was in the locker room. He walked in and sat there and she was very creeped out as one would be," said Natalie Kawham, the Guillen family's attorney.

Roughly 25% of female active duty members are sexually harassed each year according to Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization that fights for survivors of military sexual assault and harassment. In service academies, that number jumps to 50%.

Most of the time, the incident goes unreported.

"Unfortunately for most women who report, it's a career ending decision. The DoD's own numbers show one third of the women who report a sexual assault are out of the military within a year, usually with a lower discharge than what they normally would receive," said Col. Don Christensen, President of Protect Our Defenders.

The Guillen family started the #IAmVanessaGuillen, encouraging fellow military members to share their stories. The hashtag has been used hundreds of times to share disturbing acts against women in the Armed Forces.

"I was raped in my sleep when the door was locked not even two months after arriving to my first command, and I was terrified to say anything because I didn't think anyone would believe me," said one person.

"I served active duty as a jet mechanic. The men who sexually assaulted me are still serving in uniform today," posted another.

"I was sleeping. Drunk Marines kicked in my barracks door and raped me. I finally locked myself in the bathroom and they yelled no one will believe you, you are a new female, we will get away with this," said another.

Col. Christensen says Vanessa's story, however tragic, is making a difference.

"The military has escaped its MeToo movement. I think this is potentially finally that MeToo moment," he said.

The Guillen family is now pushing for a bill in Vanessa's honor that would create a third party where military members can report sexual assault and harassment. Right now, criminal investigations are conducted inside the military.

Protect Our Defenders says out of the 20,000 sexual assaults that female active duty members endure each year, only 130 end in conviction.