The oldest sister of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen cried tears of mixed joy and sadness Tuesday after the U.S. House approved legislation that strips military commanders of their powers to prosecute sexual assault cases, a victory credited by many to the unrelenting calls for justice by the 20-year-old Fort Hood soldier’s family.
Mayra Guillen, a 23-year-old Houston native, told the American-Statesman on Wednesday that she and family attorney Natalie Khawam were shocked when news broke late Tuesday that the House had passed the legislation in its version of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
‘I haven’t found justice.’:Vanessa Guillen’s family continues fight to reform Fort Hood
Guillen, who spoke to the Statesman from Khawam’s Florida home, said she had spent all day Monday feeling defeated, confiding in Khawam that she feared the legislation would again not be passed before the new year.
She, along with her family, have long stated that the legislation would be a major step in their fight for justice after the April 2020 killing of Vanessa Guillen at Fort H.
“It makes me feel at peace,” Guillen said Wednesday. “Now, service members will have some justice, some peace, in knowing that they can resolve, in a way, everything they have gone through.
“It was very emotional, both of joy and sadness because, of course, this is all in memory of my sister who I miss a lot,” she continued. “To see all of this being done under her name, in her honor, is very touching.”
It’s been since 1775 that commanders, not lawyers, have been in charge of the military justice system. The new legislation would, for the very first time, take that authority away from commanders and give it to independent military prosecutors when involving crimes like sexual assault, murder, manslaughter and kidnapping. It would also create a standalone military offense for sexual harassment.
Lawmakers, who for decades have demanded this change in the military judicial system, believe the Army’s current practices are problematic because those who investigate sexual crimes are often leaders in the victim’s direct chain of command, leading to a conflict of interest when they have relationships with the accused.
Those beliefs were confirmed in the summer of 2020 after Fort Hood was the subject of an independent investigation, led by a team of former military and law enforcement agents, who discovered that 47% of junior enlisted female soldiers interviewed from July 2018 through June 2019 said they feared retaliation for reporting a sexual crime.
The investigators also released data showing that Fort Hood’s rate of violent sex crimes was 43.2% higher than the Army average from 2015 until 2020. Fort Hood had 1,463 reports of sexual assault in those five years, the investigators’ report says.
From January to October last year, Fort Hood had 112 reports of sexual assault. However, many women who spoke anonymously to investigators two summers ago said many soldiers did not report their personal experiences with sexual assault and harassment because they fear retaliation.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and an early backer of the reforms, said the new independent prosecutors, known as the special trial counsels, will be under civilian control, reporting to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Don Christensen — who served as chief prosecutor for the Air Force between 2010 and 2014 and now offers free legal services for military sexual assault victims through his nonprofit called Protect Our Defenders — called the new legislation “transformative.”
“It’s a momentous occasion,” Christenson told the Statesman on Wednesday. “It’s not perfect. There are still things to be done, but it is putting the military justice system on the right track to be a truly professional, independent justice system.”
What happened to Spc. Vanessa Guillen?
It was nearly two years ago that Spc. Vanessa Guillen, born and raised in Houston as a first-generation immigrant, served at one of the largest military training grounds known as Fort Hood.
At the time, Fort Hood was proudly enveloped in its decades long reputation of preparing troops for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Army had nicknamed the post as “The Great Place” for the quality of life it offered to those stationed there.
But the brutal slaying of Guillen — who investigators believe was bludgeoned to death April 22, 2020, by a fellow soldier on post — led to revelations at Fort Hood that exposed a hidden reputation of violence and misconduct among soldiers, particularly sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Mayra Guillen, Vanessa’s oldest sister, was the first to report the soldier missing after her texts went unanswered the day she was killed.
With little or no information about Vanessa’s whereabouts from the Army, the Guillen family assailed Fort Hood over the next several weeks with protests outside the front gates as they called for congressional intervention into what they believed was a complete failure by post leadership to find Vanessa.
During one of the protests outside of Fort Hood, before Guillen’s remains were discovered near the Leon River outside of Killeen later that summer, the soldier’s mother revealed that her daughter had confided in her that multiple soldiers were sexually harassing her on post.
The Guillen family’s protests triggered a viral social media hashtag, #IAmVanessaGuillen, that hundreds of service members used online to share their own experiences with sexual assault in the military.
Many of the stories were similar, often saying the military did little or nothing to investigate, charge and prosecute their offenders. In many of the social media posts, soldiers said they never reported their experiences because of fear of retaliation.
The #IAmVanessaGuillen movement is what finally caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington. Elements of a proposed I Am Vanessa Guillen Act eventually were included in the NDAA after failing to pass as a standalone bill.
Spc. Aaron Robinson, the man investigators think killed Guillen, fatally shot himself as authorities tried to detain him a day after Guillen’s remains were found. Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, who is accused of helping him dispose of the soldier’s remains, is set to stand trial in late January.
What lies ahead
It’s now up to the Senate this week to vote on the new legislation in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which Khawam on Wednesday said should happen by the end of the week.
Those two versions will then be morphed into the final DNAA for 2022. But lawmakers are taking an untraditional approach to finalizing the language, Khawam said, so it was unclear as of Wednesday if lawmakers plan to conference to pick and choose parts of each, or just fully adopt one of the two versions.
“We’re watching history in the making as we speak,” Khawam said Wednesday. “Yesterday, we had no idea they were going to vote on this. It came out of nowhere.”
The final version of the bill could pass the U.S. Senate by Friday and be ready for President Joe Biden’s signature, she added.
As for Mayra Guillen, she announced for the first time to the Statesman that she plans to run for Congress in the near future to achieve more rights for men and women suffering from violent crime in the military.
“Life itself places you where you’re meant to be,” Guillen said. “If I’m doing this as a normal citizen, why not do it in office?”
“We’re going to decide what area needs to be served most,” said Khawam, who is now Guillen’s mentor. “She’s still young enough to be able to find where her calling should be.”
Mayra said, for now, she’s turning her attention to Aguilar’s trial, calling it another opportunity for justice in her sister’s case.
“There are different forms of justice,” she said. “There are so many different branches and it’s so complicated, but the legislation was the biggest one.”
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