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Military & Veterans' Issues

San Antonio Activists Hold Vigil For Vanessa Guillen Near Fort Sam Houston

The group Autonomous Brown Berets De San Anto held a vigil and rally Saturday near Fort Sam Houston to honor Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen. The event, one of several throughout Texas, also highlighted the violence women in the military and throughout society face on a regular basis.

"The amount of violence they face while being dismissed," the Facebook event page explained, "is not only a shame on the military -- it is a shame on all of us. It's been normalized, and we will no longer accept it."

Army Specialist Guillen has been missing since April 22. On Tuesday, authorities found a body by the Leon River near Belton, Texas, but they said they would wait for the results of DNA analysis before they could confirm it was Guillen.

Investigators said a male suspect in the case, Specialist Aaron David Robinson, killed Guillen with a hammer and recruited 22-year-old Cecily Aguilar to help him mutilate and hide the body. Officials said Robinson shot and killed himself before they could make contact with him. Aguilar is in custody, and on Friday prosecutors charged her with conspiracy to tamper with evidence.

Lupe Guillen explained to NPR that her sister was sexually harassed by at least two men at Fort Hood and was too afraid of being stigmatized to report it.

Guillen_0.jpg
Credit U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command
Guillen

"She first told her best friend Josylyn about one incident with Robinson," Lupe Guillen recalled, "and then there’s this other incident that happened on Fort Hood military base that this other man was sexually harassing her verbally and used to stalk her as well. But she never told my mother the name of that man."

Officials said they interviewed more than 300 people throughout the ongoing investigation and found no credible information proving Guillen was sexually harassed.

Lupe Guillen added that stories shared through the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen showed why her sister was too scared to report the harassment. Military women are using the hashtag to shed light on their experiences with sexual harassment being improperly handled by the military.

The hundreds of participants in Saturday's event used it as another way to highlight the violent realities servicewomen are forced to endure -- one more example of the realities they felt the military community must confront.

Organizers pointed out that although Guillen was stationed at Fort Hood, near Killeen, holding at vigil at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio made sense because violence "is something at all military bases around the world. Women in the military face abuse, assault, rape, and murder at such high rates and nothing is done to protect them by their leadership."

Saturday was also July 4 -- Independence Day. "We are having this vigil on the 4th because it's a holiday that is supposed to represent freedom," the organizers explained, "but if service women are subjugated to these kind of horrors then we don't have any type of freedom the US claims we do."

Once the event began, particpants shared their stories of harassment, abuse and abandonment.

Former Army Sgt. Rachell Tucker explained that the "first thought when you report it to somebody in command l said is, 'well, what did you do, what did you do to make this happen? Why is this happening to you? You must have done something.' It’s always like a blame the victim kind of thing.”

"Harassment happens daily," she added, "and so basically like, as a woman in the military, you have to pick your battles and figure out how to deal with the amount of harassment. And then find out how to fight back in your own way without getting in trouble."

She and others called for harassment and sex crimes to be taken out of the chain of command -- for an outside agency to investigate allegations.

People chanted, "Say her name! Vanessa Guillen! Say her name! Vanessa Guillen!" Others held up their fists, or they held signs that read "Brown bodies are not disposable," "Justicia para Vanessa" and "If Vanessa was a rifle, no one would have left until she was found."

After the vigil, a short march towards the base followed. It stopped about a block from the base gates, and the event ended shortly thereafter.

The sequence of events, as officials understand them, began about 10 weeks ago. They said that Guillen was working at an arms room when she went to confirm the serial numbers of weapons and equipment at another arms room. They said Robinson was working there and, for an unknown reason, repeatedly hit Guillen with a hammer, killing her.

Two witnesses told authorities they saw Robinson load a large box into his truck that day and then leave the base.

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Credit U.S. Army
Robinson

Aguilar told officials that Robinson confessed to killing a woman and recruited her to mutilate and hide the woman’s body in an area by the Leon River.

Court documents stated that both Aguilar and Robinson lied to police about what happened, but cell phone evidence revealed inconsistencies in their stories. Aguilar allegedly confessed the truth to police on June 30.

The Army said Robinson fled the base Tuesday, then shot and killed himself before officials could reach him.

Authorities did not release a motive for the killing. Aguilar's initial court appearance will likely take place next week in Waco.

In the past few weeks, Guillen’s family has criticized the Army’s investigation into her disappearance.

Natalie Khawam, and attorney for Guillen's family, spoke to NPR on Friday. She said the family's worst fears have been confirmed.

"We knew [Guillen] hadn’t run away," she said. "We knew that something horrible was going to happen because she felt very uncomfortable about these men sexually harassing her at the base.”

Houston Public Media's Sascha Cordner contributed to this report.
Jolene Almendarez can be reached at JoleneAlmendarez@gmail.com and on Twitter at @jalmendarez57.

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