How Vanessa Guillen’s Tragic Death Is Helping Transform Sexual Assault Reporting in the U.S. Military
Mayra Guillen is too busy to mourn her younger sibling, Vanessa Guillen. Vanessa was killed in April 2020.
In the year and a half since Vanessa’s death, a good chunk of Mayra’s time has been spent caring for her parents, particularly her mother, Gloria Guillen, who became ill after Vanessa died, and her four younger siblings. But nearly all of her remaining days—Mayra estimates about 80% of her time, total—has been spent advocating for federal legislation that would improve sexual assault misconduct reporting. If such legislation had existed before 2020, Mayra believes it could have saved her sister’s life.
“If [these measures were] in place at the time that my sister needed it, then things would be very different,” says Mayra, 23, in a Skype interview from Florida. “I’d rather my sister be honored than forgotten.”
Mayra finally sees the results of months of advocacy. The U.S. Senate approved the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 on Dec. 15. This includes a provision making sexual harassment a crime in the Uniform Code for Military Justice. This Act also alters how military personnel can report instances of sexual misconduct.
Mayra, as well as her family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, were present in the Senate Chamber to witness the vote. The NDAA is headed to the President’s desk for his signature. Though the NDAA doesn’t include all the changes that Mayra and her family would like to see, it feels like a victorious first step—the culmination of the Guillen family’s twenty-month foray into advocacy, coalition and lobbying at the highest levels of government.
“We just moved a mountain. I mean, I don’t care if you move a mountain an inch or a mile, you still moved a mountain,” Khawam says. “This is incredible. This has never ever been done.”
An act of tragedy which sparked an entire movement
Vanessa Guillen, a twenty-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Hood Army Base in the vicinity of Houston was Vanessa Guillen. Killeen was in Texas on the 22nd of April 2020 when Killeen vanished. Killeen had told her mother about being sexually harassed while serving with the Army and she reported it to her mother. Roughly six weeks later, on June 30, Vanessa’s remains were discovered close to Leon River in Bell County, Texas. Hours later, Army soldier Aaron Robinson, who is believed to have been Vanessa’s killer, shot himself dead.
The stark tragedy of Vanessa’s death ignited a massive, online explosion of activism that many have compared to the #MeToo movement, during which millions of women worldwide took to social media to share experiences of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Within days of Vanessa’s disappearance, thousands of U.S. servicewomen, posting from around the world, shared on social media their stories of sexual harassment and assault—common experiences that for decades have plagued all the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Numerous people used the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen to share their stories. Many legislators credit the social media movement with generating political will and change in the manner that the military handles reported cases of sexual misconduct.
Khawam (the lawyer Mayra describes as her family) and the Guillens benefited from the grassroots movement’s power to press legislators and leaders to do something. They led protests in Washington, D.C., Fort Hood, and Houston, Texas over the past year, and met with President Trump. Mayra often split her time between advocating in the Capitol and witnessing a criminal case in Waco, Texas against Cecily Aguilar, Robinson’s girlfriend who is accused of aiding in the dismemberment, burning and hiding of Vanessa’s body.
Mayra said that the time was difficult. “I’ve had my days where I don’t want to talk to anyone or know anything,” she says. “Then I think back to myself, ‘You can’t afford to do this, you have to get back up and finish the task.’”
You don’t see progress overnight. “At this point last year it was all no, no, no, and it was very saddening to see that nothing was taking place,” Mayra recalls. But a hallmark of the Guillen family’s fight was that they seemed unwilling—despite extraordinary challenges—to let up.
“We have been very persistent,” Khawam says sternly from her home in Florida. “That’s the nicest way to put it.”
It was a huge success, which took years to achieve.
Khawam who represented military personnel previously says that she worked with the Guillen clan to help them plan for a change in military procedures regarding sexual misconduct.
Khawam was Marine Richard Stayskal’s representative in 2018. He is suffering from a deadly form of lung cancer and military doctors ought to have discovered it years earlier. Congress granted service members the right of filing medical malpractice claims against Department of Defense healthcare providers under the 2020 NDAA.
Khawam was able to apply some of the tactics she learned on Capitol Hill during the Stayskal case—like convincing lawmakers that supporting the cause could be mutually beneficial—to a new effort, one the Guillen’s were eager to take part in.
Both the Department of Defense and legislators have known for a long time that harassment and sexual assault in military personnel is an issue. DoD estimates that 135,000 service personnel have been sexually assaulted over the past 11 years and 509,000 people have suffered sexual harassment in this same time period. For a decade, legislators have been attempting to reform the way sexual misconduct has been handled in the military, but have so far been unsuccessful—until the case of Vanessa Guillen.
Historically, victims of sexual assault or harassment would report their abuse to their commanding officer—typically non-lawyers—who would control the investigatory and disciplinary processes. It is controversial because it can create conflicts of interest and leave victims vulnerable when the abuser is their commander.
According to a House Armed Services Committee summary, the new provisions of the NDAA prohibit the commander from taking decisions regarding the prosecution of crimes such as rape and sexual assault murder manslaughter and kidnapping. Independent counsel will instead be responsible for reviewing such cases.
“This [legislation represents] a bit of joy,” says Mayra, “for all the victims who wanted to be heard.”
There is still much to do
While the NDAA marks a major reform, it doesn’t go as far as advocates had hoped. Independent counsel will pursue a narrower list of criminal offenses than Senator Kirsten Gillibrand advocated. Independent counsel will not be able to create courts martial or select jurors. Commanding officers are still the ones who have the power.
Many lawmakers have credited Vanessa Guillen’s case for finally moving the needle on military justice. “The assault and murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen was a tragedy that devastated our military community—but it also served as a wakeup call that serious changes needed to be made to protect our men and women in uniform,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa in a statement to TIME. “Spc. Guillen’s family turned their loss into action, and have advocated relentlessly for improvements in the military’s handling of sexual assault and other serious crimes.”
Ernst stated that there was more to do and she will continue working with Senators Gillibrand and Chuck Grassley. This bipartisan group has been advocating for a system overhaul ever since 2013. They also passed the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. Ernst had previously voted to remove sexual offenses from the chain of command, but she changed her mind this year. Ernst is the only GOP female who has been formally an officer in the military and was also a victim of sexual assault. Others voted in favor of her endorsement for the NDAA sexual misconduct measures.
“The family of U.S. Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen deserves special recognition for their role in bringing about this transformative change,” said Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, in a public statement. Sylvia Garcia (Democratic Representative) stated in a statement that the bill was a step closer towards protecting soldiers. “I thank the Guillen family for their tireless fight to get justice for Vanessa,” she added.
Still, regardless of her family’s legislative accomplishments, the Guillens still have many unanswered questions——including the identity of the man was who was sexually harassing Vanessa before her death, and whether he has been reprimanded. Gloria feels that Vanessa deserves justice, but only if she has all of the facts and knows who it was. “I’m the kind of mother who won’t rest until I know what happened…I need to get to the truth, no matter what it is, I need to know.”
‘She’s my life, that girl’
Gloria remembers Vanessa growing up in Houston. She was a rambunctious and innocent “little piece of heaven,” Gloria tells TIME in Spanish. Vanessa was Gloria’s second child out of six. A portrait of her, in her military uniform, hangs on the wall behind Gloria’s shoulder.
Mayra and Vanessa are both from Mexican-American immigrants. They have a history of serving in military units, both in Mexico and the U.S. Vanessa, a child of Mexican immigrants, expressed an interest in joining military service like her father. “It was probably in her blood to want to enlist,” says Gloria, adding that she never like the idea of her daughter in uniform. Gloria “a bad feeling” about Vanessa enlisting, she recalls—a premonition that she now she chalks up to a mother’s intuition. It was also her wish that Vanessa would return home to start a family.
But that wasn’t Vanessa’s personality, her family recalls. Her high school had advanced classes and she was an active soccer player. Mayra reports that Vanessa and Mayra had a very close friendship. Their entire lives they shared a room. The two of them would frequently stop at coffee shops before class and work together in a flea market on weekends. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of laughter,” Mayra says.
Vanessa’s death has taken a physical toll on Gloria. While she appears slimmer during the Skype interview, she is thinner than her appearance when she stood before cameras at Fort Hood Army Base in June 23 2020. She made bone-chilling threats to tear down Fort Hood and threaten to kill herself if she doesn’t get her daughter back alive. “She’s my life, that girl, she’s my life,” Gloria said in Spanish to a crowd of reporters. “That’s why I’m fighting with nails and teeth until they return her to me and the guilty pay.” One need not understand Spanish to grasp her rage and heartbreak.
The grief still stings 18 months later. “I try to remember Vanessa as she was because pain makes one sick,” Gloria says. “So I remember her how she was—gorgeous, beautiful—and especially now I think of her with pride…She came to tear everything down, she came to be a hero with her story even though she was so young, so small.”
“I lost my little piece of heaven,” Gloria says, but adds that the passage of the NDAA at least lends her daughter’s death some purpose. “If my girl will save lives, I accept it.”
— With reporting by Abby Vesoulis