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Cornyn-Hegar Race Could Influence How Military Handles Sexual Assault, Harassment

A screenshot from Friday's memorial service for Vanessa Guillén in Houston. Her death has put renewed attention on sexual harassment and assault in the military, and Texas' U.S. Senate race could influence the policy outcome.
A screenshot from Friday's memorial service for Vanessa Guillén in Houston. Her death has put renewed attention on sexual harassment and assault in the military, and Texas' U.S. Senate race could influence the policy outcome.

Vanessa Guillén’s high school in Houston was the site of her public memorial service last Friday. 

Her younger sister, Lupe Guillén, delivered a heart wrenching farewell.

“Vanessa Guillén, you will be remembered, honored and respected. Goodbyes are not forever, are not the end. It simply means, I’ll miss you,’” Lupe said.

Guillén's death has put renewed attention on sexual harassment and assault in the military, and Texas’ U.S. Senate race could have a real influence on the policy outcome.

GUILLÉN'S CASE SPARKS CALLS FOR CHANGE

Guillén  disappeared in April. Authorities  found her body in June near Fort Hood, where she was a Specialist. Investigators allege another soldier  killed her with a hammer to the head. He later died by suicide as police confronted him.

Lupe Guillén at the lecturn at her sister Vanessa's memorial service.
Credit Screenshot from memorial service.
Lupe Guillén at the lecturn at her sister Vanessa's memorial service.

Guillén’s family said she told them she was being sexually harassed. The Army has said she potentially was harassed, but not sexually. There are multiple ongoing investigations.

Protesters have rallied for justice in Guillén's case. In a hearing earlier this summer on Capitol Hill, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said  Guillén’s death wouldn’t be in vain.

“Service members everywhere have bravely raised their voices to demand accountability, to call out their perpetrators and demand change now,” said Speier, chair of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

THE MILITARY JUSTICE IMPROVEMENT ACT

Change could come through new federal law. 

Currently, military commanders decide which cases of murder, sexual assault and other serious crimes to prosecute. Bipartisan legislation called the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) would give those decisions to independent military lawyers outside the chain of command. 

The idea, championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), dates back to 2013. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a cosponsor. 

But the Pentagon opposes the bill and it has so far failed to pass. That’s despite getting a majority of votes in the Senate in 2014 and 2015. It couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

In 2020, the MJIA was offered as an amendment to a defense spending bill, but didn’t advance.

The Democratic candidate for Texas’ other Senate seat is veteran M.J. Hegar. She told KERA she would vote for the Military Justice Improvement Act. 

The vast majority of people in the military are dedicated public servants, Hegar said, but commanders shouldn’t oversee criminal allegations like sexual assault.

“The people in the chain of command are good at executing the mission,” she said. “They’re not necessarily the people who should be making decisions about whether or not there’s enough evidence to prosecute someone for sexual assault.”

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar speaks to supporters during her election night party in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Credit Eric Gay / Associated Press
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar speaks to supporters during her election night party in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Hegar herself was sexually assaulted in the Air Force by a military physician. She’s spoken publicly about how the doctor confessed, but wasn’t properly punished

The MJIA does not deal with sexual harassment, although recent amendments to a defense bill in the House would create a confidential reporting system for sexual harassment in the military. 

Hegar said moving prosecution decisions outside the chain of command is the right thing to do for both sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“Do you think it would be a good idea, if there was rampant sexual harassment at a company – and a lot of reports and a culture of sexual harassment — if law enforcement came to the CEO and said ‘it’s up to you if you want to pursue investigations and charges?’” she asked. “That’s basically what the situation is here.”

While the number of sexual assault victims in the military seeking health care or other support increased last year, the number willing to report their cases for an investigation decreased.

HOW HEGAR COULD INFLUENCE THE DEBATE

Col. Don Christensen, a retired Air Force prosecutor, is president of Protect Our Defenders, which advocates for giving prosecution decisions to independent military lawyers. He said Hegar being in the Senate would be significant.

“Having women who’ve served in the military, who know what the problems are, say that this has to be changed is really something hard for the generals and admirals to counter,” he said.

However, not all women veterans feel the way Hegar does. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), also an Air Force veteran, was sexually assaulted while in the military but does not support removing prosecution decisions from the chain of command. 

Hegar’s Republican opponent, Sen. John Cornyn, has voted at least twice against giving military lawyers authority over serious crimes.

Sen. John Cornyn makes comments during a news conference at UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Sunday, June 28, 2020.
Credit Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
Sen. John Cornyn makes comments during a news conference at UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Sunday, June 28, 2020.

Cornyn’s Senate office said he’s voted for other bipartisan reforms that went on to become law. These measures included taking into account an officer’s handling of sexual assault cases when the military decides on promotion.

In an emailed statement sent from his office, Cornyn called the Guillén case a “terrible tragedy.”

“We want all young women who volunteer to serve in our militaries to be able to do so without harassment, and to be safe and secure, but this also raises questions about the chain of command and the environment in which this might have occurred,” he said. “We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but I do think after the criminal investigation is completed, that would be the appropriate time for Congress then to weigh in.”

KERA News reached out to Cornyn for this story. His campaign said he wasn’t available for an interview. 

MILITARY READINESS

Military leaders have resisted removing serious crimes from the chain of command. 

Lt. Gen. Charles Pede, the Army’s Judge Advocate General, made his case in a Senate hearing last year.

“Taking away a commander’s decision over discipline, acts of misconduct, including the decision to prosecute crime at court martial, will fundamentally compromise the readiness and lethality of our army today and on the next battlefield.” Pede said.

Advocates like Christensen disagree that this would be the effect, because military crimes like desertion and more minor offenses would stay with the chain of command. Other countries like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have made similar policy changes, and military officials there have said they haven’t seen a decline in readiness.

Christensen said Vanessa Guillén’s story, as sparse as it is at the moment, has affected the debate over military justice.

“It’s definitely energized the people who are proposing that we reform the military justice system,” he said. “My hope is that Congress will finally start listening to not only survivors, but their supporters.”

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org . You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers .

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Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.