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Family of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen works with FL lawyer to pass legislation in her name

Tampa attorney Natalie Khawam holds a press conference with sisters of the late Army soldier Vanessa Guillen, who are in town to discuss drafting a bill in Vanessa's name. The bill would allow soldiers to file sexual harassment and assault claims against the Department of Defense. Vanessa's youngest sister, Lupe Guillen, 16, speaks to reporters about the proposed bill during the press conference on Wednesday in Tampa. (Luis Santana/Times/TNS)

When the body of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, was found near the U.S. Army’s Fort Hood in Texas on Aug. 25, Mayra Guillen had a long, restless night.

“It completely took me back to the day that my sister was found,” she said.

Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s story drew national attention this year after the 20-year-old soldier, also assigned to Fort Hood, was reported missing on April 23. Her remains were discovered near the base and identified in early July. Three other Fort Hood soldiers also were found dead under suspicious circumstances between March and May.

Two weeks after Guillen’s memorial service, her three sisters came to Tampa Wednesday to learn what it would take to pass a federal bill in Vanessa Guillen’s name. It would allow active-duty service members to file claims of sexual harassment or assault to a third-party agency instead of through their military chain of command.

Prior to going missing, Vanessa Guillen had confided in her mother that she was being sexually harassed by her higher-ups and said she didn’t want to file a report because she feared retaliation, Mayra Guillen said. Fernandes also had reported in May that he was sexually assaulted, according to an Army press release.

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Tampa-based attorney Natalie Khawam has drafted the standalone bill, #IAmVanessaGuillen. Members of Congress from both parties have expressed support, she said, and added that U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma will introduce it.

Khawam has been representing the Guillen family pro bono because she wanted to help them with the long-term goal of passing the legislation and helping to prevent such tragedies from happening again. She also is representing the Fernandes family pro bono after they called her for support.

To help the Guillens understand the next steps in getting a bill before Congress during this session, Khawam brought them to Tampa to meet with Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal, another of her pro bono clients.

Stayskal, who is a Green Beret working at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, worked with Khawam to pass a provision in this year’s national defense budget that allows those on active duty to file medical malpractice claims against the government. In his case, Stayskal’s terminal cancer was misdiagnosed by military doctors, he and Khawam said.

After meeting with the Guillens, Stayskal said he sees a lot of himself when he wasn’t sure what he was getting into when working on a bill. He’s hopeful their journey will end on a high note, as his did, because he can see how their bill would help others.

“I don’t think they’re out to destroy the system, I think they’re here to better the system,” Stayskal said.

Service members have other channels for reporting sexual harassment and assault that don’t involve their chains of command, including a national hotline, according to Lory Manning, director of government relations for the national nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network.

But there isn’t enough education about these services, she said, and there’s also a cultural barrier.

“They’re drilled so heavily in everything going through the chain of command that folks don’t realize there are other options,” said Deshauna Barber, chief executive of the nonprofit.

And as in Guillen’s case, the fear of retaliation remains even after Congress made such retaliation a crime in recent years, Manning added.

Guillen’s story and her family’s pleas for justice have driven several members of Congress to consider legislation that would allow service members to file lawsuits in cases of harassment or assault, Manning said. Due to the 1946 Federal Torts Claims Act and the 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres Doctrine, active-duty service members cannot pursue civil lawsuits against the Department of Defense or individuals in service, she added.

For now, Mayra Guillen remains optimistic for the bill, saying the work is keeping her family members going as they seek to help prevent more losses.

“It’s too late now in a way for Vanessa, but we could still honor her,” Mayra Guillen said. “This is something that she would have wanted.”

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