© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'¡Que viva Vanessa!': San Antonio Activists Celebrate Guillen's Birthday, Push For Legislation

Stephanie Gattas, founder and CEO of the Pink Berets, speaks about the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act before the start of the march.
Carson Frame | Texas Public Radio
Stephanie Gattas, founder and CEO of the Pink Berets, speaks about the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act before the start of the march.

Murdered Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen would have turned 21 years old this week on Sept. 30. That day, activists from around San Antonio held a downtown march in her honor — and demanded progress on legislation that carries her name.

Standing before the Wings of Mexico statue in Hemisfair Park, they celebrated Guillen’s life, which was cut short by a fellow soldier.

“We wanted to find her and restore her to her family,” said AnaLuisa Tapia, District 17 director of the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens, over a loudspeaker. “Sadly, she's in heaven. May she rest in glory... We're celebrating who she is and forever will be. Because of her, the military had to take notice. ¡Que viva Vanessa! ¡Que viva Vanessa!”

Participants cheered and sang happy birthday to Spc. Guillen, a first-generation American with Mexican roots.

Guillen disappeared from Fort Hood in April after telling family she was being sexually harassed. Her body was found months later. The case triggered a national conversation about sexual violence in the military — and legislation to change how it’s handled.

March organizer and combat veteran Pamela Heal said she tried to report sexual abuse while in the Navy. But her complaints went ignored, and she faced backlash from those in her unit.

"If I had known when I enlisted, and I raised my right hand and signed up... If I had known that I would be raped and retaliated against for reporting it and treated like a whore and a slut and a liar, I would not have joined. I wouldn't have. I barely survived," said Heal.

During her eight-year career, Heal said she confronted sexual trauma many times.

“After the fifth time, I said, 'The military isn't safe for me,'” she recalled. “So that's why I got out.”

The I Am Vanessa Guillen Act would make sexual harassment a crime under military law. It would also move prosecution authority outside of the chain of command for sexual assault and harassment cases. Advocates hope that will reduce judicial bias and retaliation against survivors.

Stephanie Gattas is the CEO of the Pink Berets, a veteran service organization for women. She said the goal is to pass the bill and ultimately end military sexual trauma.

“But we have to do that as a whole. We have to do that by calling upon our elected officials and calling upon our communities to come forward. So that way we don't have to worry about another catastrophic event like Vanessa Guillen's death," Gattas said.

The I Am Vanessa Guillen Act was supposed to have been on the U.S. House of Representatives' docket a week ago. These activists fear it’s losing momentum and may be dismissed.

Carson Frame can be reached carson@tpr.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame