‘There is hope’: New documentary focuses on survivors of military sexual violence

The viral hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen sparked a movement, and is now the title of a documentary that speaks to the power of survivors.

By Yvonne MarquezJuly 20, 2022 2:07 pm, , , ,

A new Univision documentary centers on the stories of women soldiers who have been sexually assaulted while serving. #IamVanessaGuillen was inspired by the story of 20-year-old soldier, Vanessa Guillen, who went missing from Fort Hood in April 2020 after reporting she was sexually harassed on the military base. Her remains were found several months later.

Thousands of service members of all genders experience military sexual violence, according to statistics from the United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Most incidents go unreported.

Guillen’s death sparked protests calling for the military to reform the way it handles sexual assault allegations, as well as the viral hashtag: #IAmVanessaGuillen. Texas Standard spoke with the film’s director, Andrea Patiño Contreras. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What motivated you to make this documentary?

Andrea Patiño Contreras: At Univision, we were reporting on Vanessa’s case. We had been doing that for a while, and throughout that time, we heard of the case of Karina Lopez, who is another Latina soldier. And when we learned about her case, I flew down to see her in North Carolina and learn more about this. And I knew right away that this is a story we really needed to tell.

Obviously, from Vanessa’s case, a few months prior, we knew that this was not an individual case or an extraordinary event. This was clearly a pattern. And Karina’s case really kind of illustrated that for me. I think I was very struck by many things, including the way in which she articulated her experience, the ways in which she explained to me PTSD that she went through because of this event. And I really wanted to capture that story. I started researching and doing a lot more reporting. We were very struck, I think, by the pervasiveness of this problem.

What more can you tell us about Karina Lopez?

Yeah, so Karina was a young soldier. She joined the Army in 2016 and by 2018, she was stationed at Fort Hood. About two months in, she says she was sexually assaulted. And after trying to report her case, she says that she was not listened to. And in fact, what came afterwards was worse. Like the retaliation and being ostracized both by her peers and her superiors really kind of pushed her to a mental state that was really, really bad. She became suicidal. And the two years following that when she tried to report it, were really, really bad. She ended up having to leave the Army in March of 2020, which was a month before Vanessa went missing.

Once she heard the news that Vanessa had gone missing, she was devastated. I think she really saw herself in her. And while Vanessa was missing, Karina decided to share her story on Facebook. She put her photo next to Vanessa’s, wrote a little bit of her story and shared it with the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen. And as we know now, that post went viral, thousands of people shared it. Many, many people also shared their own stories with it and changed their own photo and put it next to Vanessa’s as well.

It’s been more than two years since Vanessa Guillen was murdered. And that, of course, led to an independent review at Fort Hood. What did officials find then? And from what you can tell, how much has changed at Fort Hood since then?

Yeah, it was pretty remarkable because the Army allowed an independent review committee to go in on the base. They interviewed thousands of soldiers. From the interviews, they found that soldiers had very little trust in them. They were afraid of reporting because of retaliation and being ostracized by peers. So the findings are very, very damning. They came out of that report with 70 recommendations, 14 leaders were disciplined in one way or another.

We were able to visit Fort Hood in March of 2021, so about three months after the report had come out, and I think they took it seriously. I think they took it at heart. But I think these things take a really long time. It’s very hard for culture to change. I think some leaders really got it and I think really understood the gravity of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I think some others probably didn’t. Even if you have like prevention trainings, even if you tell your soldiers not to assault other soldiers, well, if you don’t hold people accountable for their actions and if you don’t set an example from the leadership, well, that’s not going to change. I hope that things are improving. I do think it will take some years before we see true tangible changes.

In your film, it’s clear how difficult it is for these women soldiers to talk about their experiences. But there are also things that the viewer sees about how they’re healing. Could you say something about what might be learned from these women about trauma and healing?

Absolutely. I think one of the biggest lessons for me was — for a lot of them, what we heard was that the assault itself, as dramatic as it was, it was not the worst part. What was worse was what happened afterwards. It was the not believing. It was the lack of trust, almost really pushing them to feeling like they were crazy, that they didn’t know whether this had happened or not. And that has a really, really profound effect on mental health.

I told this to someone recently, but I myself, I’m a survivor of sexual violence and in my case, a very completely different context, but in my case, my perpetrators were caught and went to jail. And I think I got a much more profound understanding of what justice can do to you and what it can do to your mental health and what it can grant you, like it can very much restore your dignity in many ways and allow you to focus in your own healing. So that was a huge lesson for me.

But also, you know, all of these women, their resilience was also very, very incredible. I think a lot of them, we also found that sharing their stories with other vets or sharing their stories with other people that had had similar experiences was incredibly powerful. I don’t think they obviously should have ever gone through these experiences in the first place. But there was a kind of incredible power in sharing their stories in this intimate communities. Because this is such a pervasive issue, the VA has a lot of resources. People have access to free therapy if they have gone through MST, military sexual trauma. So, I also wanted people to understand that there is hope.

Your documentary is available in English with Spanish subtitles. And of course, it premiered on a Spanish language network. Why was it important to reach Spanish language audiences?

Yeah, absolutely. I think our audience is primarily Latino. This also happens to be the fastest growing demographic in the Army. Many, many Latinos and other minorities are joining the ranks. And I think it’s an issue that we need to be talking more about.

I would hope that beyond those who decide to enlist and take these questions into consideration for those of us who haven’t served or are not affiliated to the military that civilians also have a lot of power in demanding justice and accountability from this institution.

It was also striking for me to hear from a lot of these people we talked to that even though they had these terrible experiences, I think most of them were still really proud to have served, were so thankful for some of the opportunities that they were granted because they joined the army. And I think that’s true for a lot of people who want to join the army. This represents a lot of opportunities, but it’s certainly a very pervasive issue that we need to address, and that the institution needs to address urgently.

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