Four years after Vanessa Guillén’s death, advocates are cautiously optimistic about military reforms

The military has a new system to investigate sexual harassment complaints after Guillén’s family said her complaints weren’t taken seriously.

By Gabriella Alcorta Solorio, American Homefront ProjectJune 4, 2024 9:45 am,

From the American Homefront Project:

When Patricia Olivares moved to Killeen, Texas, in 2020 to manage the political campaign of a state house candidate, she wasn’t expecting to find herself intertwined with a case of a missing soldier.

“One of the things that you’re taught as you are going through campaign school is learning the lay of the land,” said Olivares, a retired Marine. “I picked up a couple of newspapers and the first thing I see on the front page is a picture of Specialist Guillén and the headline is, ‘Fort Hood soldier missing.’”

At that point, Spc. Vanessa Guillén had been missing for two weeks from Fort Hood, the Army base now known as Fort Cavazos. The story caught Olivares’ attention, and later the Guillén family reached out to her for help. During her meeting with Gloria Guillén, Olivares said she’ll never forget the words of conviction from a Latina mother.

“One of the last things that Gloria said to me as we finished our conversation, our meeting, she goes, ‘Yo les di a mi hija viva y a mi me la van an entrega viva.’ I gave them my daughter alive, and they’re going to give me my daughter back alive.”

Before Guillén went missing, she had told her mother she was being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier, but was afraid to report it to her commanders.

Officials later discovered Guillén’s remains in June 2020, Suspect Aaron Robinson, also a soldier, shot himself when confronted by Killeen police.

Following Guillén’s death, Congress passed a law that takes sexual harassment cases out of the hands of military commanders. Instead, those complaints are investigated by independent panels.

“That is something big,” said Olivares, who now works for the Service Women’s Action Network, which advocates for military sexual assault victims. “To be able to make that culture shift in the military is a very big deal.”

Supporters of the change hope that victims will feel less reluctant to report assaults and less fearful they’ll face retaliation from their commanders. Stephanie Gattas is the CEO of The Pink Berets, an advocacy group for women in the military. She said there has been a rise in assault reports since the law took effect.

“We are still seeing an increase across the board,” she said. “And we don’t know if it’s because more women and men are coming forward and reporting, or could it be that we still haven’t rectified the situation.”

She said service members still face the fears of retaliation from their command when they report, though they are finding a sense of community through advocacy groups like The Pink Berets and SWAN.

“The most prominent thing now is that they are reaching out,” Gattas said. “Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re feeling safe.”

She said even with the change, some soldiers remain reluctant to report.

Under the new law, when the independent panel begins an investigation, the service member’s chain of command is still informed. Although commanders no longer have power to stop the investigation, there’s still a concern about what could happen to the person who filed the complaint.

“There is a chance you’ll be retaliated against and ostracized by your fellow service members,” said Josh Connolly of the group Protect Our Defenders. “So, getting to that cultural piece of victim blaming is really important.”

As the chief of staff for former California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Connolly advocated for reforms for the past 15 years.

Connolly said retaliation cases should be documented and kept track of.

He cited an example of how the new law is making an impact – a case involving a staff sergeant who retired in 2017, but was recently called back to active duty, so the new office of special trial counsel could prosecute him.

“Recalling the individual back to active service is not usually a normal thing that takes place, so it’s interesting and clearly a victory for this new office,” Connolly said.

The sergeant pleaded guilty in May to five counts of sexual assault that took place in Hawaii and Florida.

Gattas said that kind of prosecution can go a long way to make service members feel more comfortable reporting sexual harassment and abuse.

“It has driven more women to use their voice,” she said. “I think we are seeing the landscape change in terms of people who are now fighting for change.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.