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Lawmakers to officially introduce #IAmVanessaGuillen bill Wednesday

Mellisa Mendoza places white roses at a mural for Fort Hood Spc. Vanessa Guillen at a convenience store in the Dove Springs neighborhood on July 6, 2020. (JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS)

Legislation honoring slain Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen that would allow for third-party investigations into military sexual misconduct claims will be officially introduced on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., are the lead sponsors for the legislation dubbed the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill.

The hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen went viral on social media as the search for Guillen, a 20-year-old U.S. Army specialist stationed at Fort Hood, was at its peak. She had been last seen April 22 and her disappearance remained a mystery until her remains were discovered near the Leon River in Bell County on June 30.

Former and active-duty service members used #IAmVanessaGuillen to share personal accounts of sexual misconduct within the military, which raised public doubts about whether military leaders properly handle investigations into such matters.

While Army officials say they’ve found no substantial evidence that Guillen was the victim of sexual misconduct, her family maintains that Guillen was sexually harassed by one or more soldiers at Fort Hood.

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One man the family has accused of sexually harassing Guillen is Spc. Aaron Robinson, who authorities believe killed Guillen while the two worked together in a Fort Hood weapons room the day she disappeared. Robinson died July 1 after shooting himself as local police tried to detain him, authorities have said.

Attorney Natalie Khawam, who represents the Guillen family, began advocating for the elements in the proposed legislation after learning of the family’s allegations.

The bill’s sponsors in the U.S. House, Speier and Mullin, last year also introduced and sponsored the Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act, which allows active duty military to pursue malpractice claims against the Department of Defense.

“The #IAmVanessaGuillen bill is not a bipartisan bill,” Khawam said Tuesday. “It is not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

She said the nation’s soldiers need to be protected, especially because they are honorably serving our country.

“I will continue to fight for our military like they fight for us,” Khawam said.

Under existing rules, Army officials use one mechanism for reporting sexual harassment and another for sexual assault.

Soldiers can make an informal complaint or a formal complaint. For an informal complaint, the soldier is instructed to tell someone what happened and another person will talk with the accused if he or she does not correct their behavior on their own.

To make a formal complaint, soldiers must fill out a form within 60 days of when the harassment occurred. They must write what happened, when it happened, who did it and the names of any witnesses. They have to swear to its accuracy.

Then, they “should file his or her complaint with the commander at the lowest echelon of command at which the complainant may be assured of receiving a thorough, expeditious and unbiased investigation of the allegations,” according to the Army.

Sexual assault cases can have restricted or unrestricted reporting. Restricted reporting allows a soldier to seek medical treatment after a sexual assault but doesn’t involve a criminal investigation unless the soldier changes his or her mind. The Defense Department said such restricted reports made up just over a quarter of all the 7,825 sexual assaults reported across all military branches in fiscal 2019.

With both forms of reporting, the victim gets assigned a sexual assault response coordinator, or SARC, or a sexual harassment/assault response prevention, or SHARP, specialist. The SARC or SHARP specialists are supposed to be victim advocates who advise them of their unit transfer options and procedures as well as help them seek treatment.

Both are often fellow soldiers in the victim’s unit, though.

Many sexual assaults in the military go unreported because under military justice rules, unit commanders — not independent prosecutors — decide how to handle cases, and soldiers fear retaliation, victims advocates say.

If #IAmVanessaGuillen bill goes through, another option would be available for military members.

Active-duty service members could instead report their claims directly to an outside organization tasked with investigating these reports.

Once the draft of the bill is introduced, more conversations will likely follow regarding what civilian groups would be tasked with investigating such incidents.

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© 2020 Austin American-Statesman