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Texas State Rep. César Blanco plans to file “Vanessa Guillén Act”

Missing Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen (U.S. Army/Released)

State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, plans to file the “Vanessa Guillén Act” in an upcoming session of the Texas Legislature to address sexual assaults in Texas military forces.

The legislation would be composed of two bills Blanco has pushed for in the past, according to a news release from his office. Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a Fort Hood soldier, went missing in April and was later found dead after telling her family that she was sexually harassed by an Army specialist.

Blanco, who is running for El Paso’s state senate seat and has a Republican opponent in the November general election, said Guillén “tragically lost her life because the military and its culture failed her.”

“No soldier should fear retaliation and the negative stigma of reporting assault and harassment in the armed forces,” Blanco said in a statement. “Although Specialist Guillén was in the United States military, Texas can lead with reforms to protect our soldiers in the Texas military, to ensure every Texas soldier feels safe reporting sexual assaults committed in the military and offenders are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

The legislation would be part of an “omnibus reform bill” that encompasses bills Blanco filed in 2017. One of the measures, H.B. 3039, looks to protect victims and witnesses of sexual assault from retaliation for reporting. The other, H.B. 4256, is meant to ensure state courts keep jurisdiction over criminal sexual assaults committed in the Texas military.

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Neither bill made it to the House floor in 2017 — H.B. 3039 stalled in the Calendars committee, and H.B. 4256 in the Defense and Veterans’ Affairs committee. However, both bills have renewed support, including from U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who thanked Blanco for the bills on Twitter.

Antonia Taylor, a survivor of sexual assault, organized the July 18 March for Our Voices in honor of Guillén and other victims of sexual violence in El Paso. She also supports both bills and would like more legal protections and resources for civilians as well.

“A lot of victims fear retaliation, even reporting in itself,” Taylor said. “There needs to be reform as far as how police officers deal with sexual assault cases because I feel like officers aren’t trained on how to deal with them. That would help victims a lot.”

Nubia Legarda organized the July 4 march for Vanessa Guillén in El Paso and was glad to hear Blanco will reintroduce both bills. She would like an addition to H.B. 4256 that dishonorably discharges military members found guilty of sexual assault.

“We don’t want them to just be fired from their position or have the opportunity to move to another base,” Legarda said. “We want them to be dishonorably discharged because we feel like they don’t deserve to have the benefits that veterans do.”

Legarda also wants the state legislature to honor Vanessa Guillén’s mother Gloria’s demands to remove military recruiters from schools, particularly those that serve low-income communities of color, and to shut down Fort Hood.

“She didn’t die in vain, and we will keep fighting for her and her family and those affected by sexual assault in the military,” Legarda said.

The next legislative session begins in January 2021.

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© 2020 the El Paso Times