The brutal murder of Vanessa Guillén, an Army specialist stationed at Fort Hood, resulted in calls for changes in the way the U.S. military handles sexual assault and harassment in its ranks. Before her death, Guillén’s family says she told them she was being sexually harassed by an Army sergeant, but she worried about what would happen to her if she filed a complaint.
Now, a new bill introduced by a handful of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress on Wednesday, the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, aims to ensure complaints from survivors of sexual assault, harassment and violent crimes on U.S. military bases are taken seriously, and that perpetrators are held accountable.
Jackie Speier is a Democratic member of Congress from California’s 14th Congressional District, and chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. She is the lead author of the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act. She told Texas Standard she has been working on issues related to sexual violence and harassment in the military for 10 years, but reforms have so far been incremental. She said that massive changes are needed to protect the 120,000 service members who are sexually harassed each year. She also said about 20,000 service members are assaulted each year, but just 5,000 of those cases are reported to authorities.
“It’s an epidemic which the military has been reluctant to take seriously, and has tried to sweep under the rug,” Speier said.
She said service members have told her the climate of harassment in the military surprised them.
“I’ve talked to so many service members who have been victims of sexual assault, and their cry is always, ‘I was prepared to fight the enemy outside; I wasn’t prepared to fight the enemy inside,'” Speier said.
The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would make sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Being found guilty could result in jail time, fines or a discharge from the military. In addition, the act would create a chief prosecutor and an investigations unit outside the chain of command. The prosecutor would decide which cases should move forward. Victims of sexual assault or harassment could request compensation from the military for their injuries.
Speier and eight other members of Congress will be at Fort Hood this weekend to meet with senior military leaders, as well as female enlisted personnel.
“We’re going to visit the locations of where Vanessa was last seen, where her body was found,” Speier said. “There’s something really troublesome at Fort Hood, so we’re going to look at many of those issues.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed support for the bill, and Speier said it has more than 100 House sponsors one day after it was announced. Speier said she is confident the House will pass the bill, and hopes the Senate and the president will also support it.