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One year later, Spc. Vanessa Guillen's story of sexual harassment continuing to bring about change

Posted: 5:57 PM, Jun 11, 2021
Updated: 2021-06-11 18:57:27-04

FORT HOOD, TX — Days before she disappeared from Fort Hood, Spc. Vanessa Guillen told friends, family and fellow soldiers 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 Khawam, attorney for the Guillen family, during a press conference on July 1, 2020.

It was a claim that Army officials initially refuted.

“We've interviewed hundreds of people to include all acquaintances and coworkers of Ms. Guillen, so there's no allegation whatsoever that she’s been sexually assaulted or harassed," explained Damon Phelps, special agent with the Fort Hood Criminal Investigation Detachment, during a press conference on July 10, 2020. "And any hint of information that was sexual harassment was completely looked at without any credible information."

However, after an investigation that spanned almost a year, it was confirmed that then-Pfc. Guillen was sexually harassed, but not by her believed killer- Spc. Aaron Robinson.

Guillen reported the harassment on two separate occasions. Both times, her supervisor failed to report the harassment, and other leaders failed to take action.

"We as an Army failed to protect Specialist Guillen. It's something we are learning from and using to drive our army forward," said a spokesperson with the U.S. Army Forces Command on April 30, 2021.

"She signed that contract with the Army to protect and serve the country, yet look how they treated her, like if she was nothing," screamed Lupé Guillen, sister of Vanessa Guillen, during a press conference on July 1, 2020.

In 2018, almost 25% of female active duty members were sexually harassed, according to Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization that fights for survivors of military sexual assault and harassment.

The majority of victims were harassed by someone in their chain of command.

Between 2016 and 2018, the rate of sexual assault and rape jumped by almost 40%. For women, the rate increased by over 50% to the highest levels since 2006.

When it comes to sexual assault and harassment, often times the incident goes unreported.

"Unfortunately for most women who report, it's a career ending decision. The D-O-D's own numbers show one third of the women who reports 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 during an interview with 25 News in July 2020.

The Guillen family started the #IAmVanessaGuillen to encourage fellow military members to share their stories. Since its creation, it has been used thousands of times.

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

Col. Christensen said 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 continuing to push for a bill in Vanessa's honor that would move prosecution decisions on sexual assault and harassment cases outside of the chain of command.

Of the 5,600 unrestricted reports of sexual assault in 2020, only 4% were tried by court martial, with only 0.8% of offenders being convicted of a nonconsensual sex offense.

After stalling last year, the 'I Am Vanessa Guillen' Act was re-introduced in May and has the support of several members of Congress.

"It will make a strong step closer to ensuring no service member our family will have to endure such horror," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a press conference in May 2021.

The Army has made changes following Spc. Guillen's death. In May, officials announced the Criminal Investigation Command would be restructured and led by a civilian.

The Army also announced policy changes within the Sexual Harassment/ Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program, including a policy that requires commanders to bring in investigating officers outside the brigade when it comes to sexual harassment complaints.

Even still, the Guillen family says they won't stop until the 'I Am Vanessa Guillen' Act is passed.

“No one deserves to die the way she died. No one deserves to suffer the way my sister suffered. No one. So please advocate for this legislation," said Lupé in May 2021.