Vanessa Guillen’s Death Has Highlighted Issues Of Sexual Assault And Harassment In The Military
The disappearance and death of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen has sparked conversations about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. And over the weekend, female veterans spoke out about witnessing rape culture within the military at vigils and marches in Guillen’s honor.
“The event’s called 'I am Vanessa Guillen' and just seeing Guillen she looks like so many people, so many people I was stationed with, so many people that I knew. And what happened to her was horrible but it's like not the first time, this shit happens all the time,” said former Army Sgt. Rachell Tucker.
According to the Department of Defense, almost a quarter of all women in the military experienced sexual harassment and more than 20,000 soldiers were sexually assaulted in the 2018 fiscal year. But the number might actually be higher than that.
Multiple female veterans at Guillen's vigils have said there is a negative stigma to reporting assault and harassment. According to Guillen's family, that's what happened in her situation.
Guillen's family said she had been sexually harassed on base but that she never filed a report because she feared the repercussions she might face.
At a news conference Thursday, Army officials said Guillen never issued a formal report against anyone.
They said they’ve interviewed more than 300 people in the course of their ongoing investigation and found no evidence that Guillen was being sexually harassed.
“The criminal investigation has not found a link to incidents of sexual harassment. The allegations of sexual harassment made by family, as well as other allegations that have been made as part of this investigation into the disappearance, are taken very seriously,” said Major General Scott Efflandt.
Officials say 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 Specialist Aaron David Robinson was working there and, for an unknown reason, repeatedly hit Guillen with a hammer, killing her.
According to Army officials, the male suspect is dead and a woman has been charged with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
On Sunday, Guillen's remains were identified.
Female veterans said the culture of stigmatizing and even threatening people who report sexual assault or harassment minimizes the scope of the problem.
“I was 19 years old when it happened and I was threatened for my life. I was told that if I went ahead with the report, that there was plenty of treeline to hide my body,” said a former Marine Lance Corporal.
She asked to have her last name omitted because she said her life was threatened after she was raped by several soldiers while she was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri.
But that hasn’t stopped her from trying to change how the military addresses sex crimes. She has tried to enact laws — like the STOP Act and the Military Justice Improvement Act — and tried to get crimes like rape and sexual assault, taken out of the chain of command. If taken out of the chain of command, an outside agency would investigate potential crimes.
“Regardless if we’re shaking or were crying. We need to speak up for her and demand for justice. We need to demand for change. Because the military justice system is not cutting it, and it needs to change,” she said.
Guillen’s family has continued to be critical of the military’s investigation into Vanessa’s disappearance. Her sister Lupe Guillen said in an interview with NPR this week that the military has failed her sister.
“My sister was too afraid to report the harassment because nobody would listen to her just like the other girls from hashtag I am Vanessa Guillen. They take sexual harassment, the sexual assault as a joke. They don’t care,” she said.
Now, the Guillen family is trying to get a namesake law passed to protect women in the military who are facing sexual harassment and assault.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the number of women who are sexually assaulted or harassed in the military is lower than reported. The number is higher, due to those who do not report.
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