Getting Justice For Soldier Vanessa Guillén and Others

Poster from a Justice For Vanessa Guillen Vigil in Durham on July 20. These vigils popped up organically around NC and the nation.

Fort Hood Specialist Vanessa Guillén was finally ‘laid to rest’ in Houston on Saturday, Aug 15 with a private funeral and Mass. On Aug 14, there was a public memorial at her high school, where she had been involved in multiple sports.

Many hope the uproar over sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military that blew up after Specialist Vanessa Guillén’s disappearance and murder will force permanent change in military culture.  “The Military Failed Vanessa Guillen and Others. It Must Do Better.” in Ms. Magazine explains how much her family did and “major deficiencies exposed by her case —including slow or negligent investigation of missing persons, lack of communication with families and handling of sex crimes.” 

Vanessa Guillén’s family marked another milestone in seeking justice for her killing on Thursday, July 30, when they went to Washington DC to introduce legislation to address major flaws in the way the Military handles sex crimes. The family and their lawyer held a press conference followed by a large march from the U.S. Capitol Hill to the White House to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the military. 

The #IAmVanessaGuillen bill addresses some major problems in how the military handles sexual assault and sexual harassment cases in the military. Before she was murdered, Guillén had told her family that at least two of her superiors had harassed her on base and one stalked her. She had been afraid to report them. Also exposed by her case are problems with the way the military investigates (or doesn’t investigate) disappearances of service members. The family also demanded a congressional investigation into Guillén’s death.  Now is the time to make changes and there is movement on many fronts – and there is progress with new legislation and at least two investigations.

There was a slow search for Specialist Vanessa Guillén, whose body was not discovered until over two months after her disappearance on April 22. The family fought for help and conducted multiple searches of their own with an independent search agency. Meanwhile, anger and frustration with the military led to a military #MeToo movement, with current and veteran servicewomen and servicemen sharing stories online of sex crimes they had suffered in the military using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen and #NoMas.  The uproar continues with vigils and protests around the country, including three protests in Raleigh on July 25 and the heartbreaking procession and burial on August 14-15. As described in The New York TImes article, “‘You’re a Warrior’: Vanessa Guillen Is Memorialized,” 

“The only sound during a one-minute moment of silence below the blazing Texas sun was the wailing of her grandmother, Lorenza Almanza, as she touched the end of the carriage, which had windows surrounding the coffin.”

Sex Crimes Handled Badly By Military

The proposed legislation would change the way sex crimes are handled by the military so other victims are not afraid to report them and also so perpetrators are more likely to be punished.  The proposed legislation allows service members to make reports of sexual assault and harassment through a third party who could investigate without facing conflicts of interest that exist under current protocols. 

The situation caught the attention of President Trump. Fox News reported,Trump met with slain Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen’s family at the White House, and says he backs the congressional bill named for her”. At this meeting, Trump offered to pay for the funeral with his personal funds. The family rejected the idea of a military funeral.

Note that Trump met with the family during John Lewis’ funeral, which he did not attend.

Three Fort Hood Soldiers’ Bodies Found in a Month

Guillén is not the only soldier to disappear from Fort Hood only to be found murdered. Three were found recently and this map shows where. Near Killeen (next to Fort Hood) is person 1, Gregory Wedel Morales, who disappeared only a few weeks before he was supposed to leave the Army. Guillén is person 2. Pvt. Mehjor Morta is person 3. By July 2, a petition to close down Fort Hood had over 264,000 signatures. By July 30, this petition had over 989,000 signatures.

Investigations on Base and By Congress

On July 29, lawmakers held the first congressional hearing regarding Guillén and sexual harassment on the base, which was led by California Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Part of this Congressional hearing is asking why the military waited until Vanessa’s disappearance had gone viral online to significantly expand its investigation.

Progress was made in another area as well. According to a July 30 ABC News report, “Army ready to begin broad review at Fort Hood in wake of Guillén murder,” the Army plans to review the command climate and culture at Fort Hood, Texas. The Army has named the five members of the independent panel to do the review.

The Latino Community is Outraged

The Latino community is especially outraged about how Guillén and other soldiers are unsafe on American soil, at American military bases. Many of the protests have been organized by young Latinas.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) got involved in Guillén’s case in June and later insisted the Army look for Gregory Wedel Morales as well. They later pressured the Army to clear Morales’ name. On Jun 29, LULAC warned women, especially Latinas, not to join up while it is so unsafe for them

Vanessa Guillén’s case has exposed sexual harassment and murder going unsolved for months and no one looking out for service members’ interests. Without the pressure from the Guillén family and the online service members, the bodies of Guillén, Morales and Morta would not have been found. No one had been looking; they had been branded deserters when they were actually  murder victims. The military must make bases safer for all of our service members. The #IAmVanessaGuillen Bill will allow some repair of a broken system and readjustment of military culture with regard to sex crimes. Congressional investigation and investigation into handling of Guillén’s case should force more improvements and safety on military bases via legislation. Service members should not need to fear for their physical safety, their mental health, or even their lives at military bases.

Gailya Paliga
President, NC National Organization for Women

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