USA Today: Fort Hood soldier‘s death sparks online outcry: ’The military hasn’t had their #MeToo movement yet’
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USA Today – July 6, 2020
As an investigation into the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén continues, service members and veterans are taking to social media to share experiences of sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. Military.
Under the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, users are calling for justice for Guillén, and an end to what her family and advocates say is an “epidemic” of sexual violence in the armed services.
“The #IamVanessaGuillen hashtag, I think, is really the first time that military men and women have felt empowered to speak out. The military hasn’t had their #MeToo movement yet, until now,” said Col. Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military.
“The fear of retaliation has silenced too many survivors, and I think this could be a potential sea change that breaks down the resistance of the generals and admirals who want to continue with the status quo.”
Guillén, a 20-year-old Houston native who worked at Fort Hood, went missing in April near the Texas military base. Her body was identified Sunday night after human remains were found on June 30, according to her family’s attorney. Federal and military investigators say she was killed and dismembered by a fellow soldier who took his own life last week. Cecily Aguilar, a 22-year-old civilian, was arrested and charged with one count for allegedly helping hide the body, according to a criminal complaint.
Guillén’s family, joined by friends and others in the Killeen, Texas, community, worked tirelessly to demand justice and a thorough search for the missing soldier. Those efforts gained national, and even some international, attention in the past months.
The family have maintained that Guillén was sexually harassed by superiors at Fort Hood. Attorney Natalie Kahwam believes this supervisor was Aaron David Robinson, the man officials suspect in Guillén’s disappearance.
Mayra Guillén said last week that her sister had spoken with their mother about experiencing sexual harassment, and said she believed her sister was afraid during her time at Fort Hood.
Army officials said there is still no evidence linking sexual harassment to Guillén’s disappearance, adding that they invited a team to the post earlier in the week to inspect its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP.
The family, however, says the two are intertwined, and is calling for a congressional investigation.
On Sunday, Khawam said sexual harassment in the military is an “epidemic” and demanded attention from Congress.
“You can’t turn a blind eye anymore,” she said.
Both Khawam and Christensen were angered by Fort Hood’s response and handling of the investigation.
“The Army’s number one concern was about damage control to them, verses helping Vanessa Guillén and helping her family,” said Christensen.
“Vanessa’s family has said that she told them she was being sexually harassed, and [then] she’s murdered…For the army to say, ‘Well, there’s no credible evidence that she was sexually harassed,’ is just the dismissive attitude that they show time and again when confronted with sexual harassment…It’s just another clarion call why we need to really reform the military process for handling these cases.”
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On social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, military members and veterans have used #IamVanessaGuillen to offer support to the Guillén family and share their own stories sexual assault while in uniform.
Many recounted being raped by a superior, sometimes by being drugged, or abused in their own bunks at night. Several were young, some saying they had just finished training, and detailed being one of few women in their commands.
Others recalled threats they received if they tried to report, including destroying their future military career.
All stressed that what the family alleges about Guillén’s experience is not unique. And that change is overdue.
The U.S. military says it’s devoted to preventing sexual harassment and assault, as it noted in its 2019 fiscal year report. Yet, the number of survivors of sexual assault has remained steady, and in some cases, increased in recent years.
Reports of sexual assault in the military increased 3% in 2019, the Department of Defense reported in April as part of an annual survey. A more comprehensive survey on sexual assault was released last year. That report, usually done every other year, is based on detailed surveys of troops. It found a 38% increase in assaults from 2016 to 2018 after years of focused effort and resources to eradicate it.
“The numbers are appalling, they’re getting worse. The chain of command has for 30 plus years claimed that they were going to solve it, but instead of solving it they have exasperated the problem,” said Christensen.
“At the end of the day, very few offenders are held accountable…We know that there were over 20 thousand sexual assaults involving active duty men and women in 2019, but of those only 138 were actually ever convicted of sexual assault.”
The fact that the vast majority of these cases go unreported is consistent with findings shared by Protect Our Defenders.
In a fact sheet produced for 2016-2020 statistics, the organization wrote that the rate of sexual assault and rape jumped by almost 40% from 2016 to 2018.
“Of women who reported a penetrative sexual assault, 59% were assaulted by someone with a higher rank than them, and 24% were assaulted by someone in their chain of command,” the report continued.
The findings also show that retaliation is all too common. A third of victims were found to be discharged after reporting, typically within 7 months.
More:Sexual assault reports in the military rise 3%, defying Pentagon efforts to eliminate the crime
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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who served in the Army for 17 years, also spoke at the Guillén family press conference Wednesday. She said that although some changes have been made over the years, it’s not enough.
“We stand here for Vanessa, we stand here for justice, we stand here for every other service member who’s experienced sexual harassment or assault, and did not feel safe reporting it out of fear for retaliation.”
Other legislators have demanded a congressional investigation, too, much like Guillén’s family and their attorney.
Christensen says there’s bipartisan approach for change.
“You have two ends of the political spectrum that have acknowledged…that the process isn’t working and needs to be reformed,” he said.