Military sexual assault bill honoring Vanessa Guillén reaches the president’s desk

Allegations that Guillén had been harassed by a superior led to what some are calling the most significant reforms to military justice in 50 years.

By Rhonda FanningDecember 17, 2021 6:38 am, ,

For the first time in U.S. history, military commanders will soon not have the power to prosecute sexual assault cases. This change comes in the wake of the Fort Hood slaying of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén. The new rule, along with other changes to the way sexual assault is handled in the military, is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is now on the president’s desk. President Biden has until December 20 to sign the measure into law.

Guillén’s murder in 2020 exposed a culture of sexual assault, sexual harassment and misconduct among soldiers at Fort Hood, and allegations from her family that Guillén had been sexually harassed by at least one superior. Guillén never reported the misconduct, because she feared doing so would hurt her military career.

Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat, spearheaded the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act. Garcia represents the 29th district, including parts of Houston.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You’ve advocated for this issue since you were first elected to the U.S. House back in 2018. What is it about this, and specifically about the murder of Vanessa Guillén that makes this issue so personal?

Sylvia Garcia: Well, it’s personal because she lived in my district. Her family still lives in my district, they’re constituents. But more importantly, Vanessa Guillén could be my own niece, could be my daughter. For the Latino community, especially here in Texas, they saw their own faces in Vanessa Guillén. When we had that press conference, when I went with the family to Fort Hood to demand the investigation, to demand more resources, it highlighted what was happening not only at Fort Hood, but at our other military bases. Thankfully, others before me, like Jackie Speier, the chairwoman of the Armed Services Committee that deals with these issues, have already done a lot of work. We partnered with her to file the I Am Vanessa Guillén bill to try to make sure that we put in the right reforms, particularly on the handling of cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment, to make sure that this never, ever happens again.

One of the most significant changes has to do with military commanders making decisions about prosecuting these sorts of cases. Is that right?

Oh, absolutely. That part of the Vanessa Guillén Act that is now a part of the NDA, which is the National Defense bill –- the provision that takes the complaint process and the investigation of cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault out of the chain of command to be investigated independently. This is huge, because now soldiers don’t have to fear retribution. They don’t have to fear there will be any pushback if they complain about someone. Remember, in Vanessa’s case, they did find that one of her superiors sexually harassed her. It was not the person who actually murdered her, but it was someone above her. It’s always hard to complain about someone when that someone is the one you’re supposed to complain to. So, this is huge. It also includes other crimes of domestic violence to not only be investigated, but also to be prosecuted outside of this chain of command. This is a monumental change for Fort Hood and all military bases all over the world.

Do you think the provisions in this bill go far enough? Are there other changes that you would like to see made? 

We got almost everything we wanted. There’s also provisions for more transparency, there’s also a provision for making sure of the sentencing and the prosecuting. The only thing that’s missing is that for cases of sexual assault, the reporting process will be out of the chain of command and the investigation will be out of the chain of command, but the prosecuting was still left under the Military Justice Code. So, that’s still something that we need to work on. I’m ready to work on that. So is Jackie Speier. So are all the advocates on this issue. We’ll continue fighting. We will not stop until we get justice for Vanessa.

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