“Lawmakers used the murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen as a rallying cry Tuesday to call for an end to the culture of sexual harassment and assault that has plagued the U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Supporters holding posters of the 20-year-old Fort Hood, Texas, soldier, who was allegedly slain by a male service member, surrounded lawmakers, including Reps. Jackie Speier and Julia Brownley, both D-California, and Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol.
“Hashtag I am Vanessa Guillen has become a rallying cry for survivors of … sexual harassment and sexual assault that they have endured at the hands of brothers and sisters in arms,” Speier said, describing how many victims are now speaking out about the “military’s failure to hold assailants and harassers accountable.”
Guillen, a 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier who disappeared April 22, was allegedly murdered by Spc. Aaron Robinson, according to a July 2 criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
Robinson shot and killed himself when confronted by local police. Two days later, federal authorities filed a criminal complaint charging 22-year-old Cecily Aguilar, a civilian and the estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier, with conspiracy to tamper with evidence in Guillen’s disappearance.
Robinson told Aguilar that he killed Guillen “by striking her in the head with a hammer” while on post April 22, then smuggled her body to a remote site in Bell County, according to the complaint. Aguilar allegedly helped Robinson mutilate and dispose of Guillen’s body.
Natalie Khawam, an attorney representing Guillen’s family, has alleged that Robinson sexually harassed Guillen. Fort Hood and Army Criminal Investigation Command officials maintain that there is no credible evidence that Guillen was the victim of sexual harassment.
Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel, called this a “watershed moment” in the fight against sexual harassment and assault.
“We all know that sexual harassment is often the first act of … a predator who is probing to move onto sexual assault,” she said.
Guillen told her family that she experienced sexual harassment, but “she did not have faith in the institution to file a report,” Speier said.
On July 10, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced that he had ordered an independent review of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood in connection to the Guillen case.
Army veteran Melissa Bryant, who serves as the national legislative director of the American Legion, called for passage of “meaningful legislation that will remove unlawful command influence and bias” when dealing with reports of sexual assault and harassment crimes — an entrenched culture that has “has plagued our military justice system and has discouraged women veterans and service women for reporting these incidents.”
“Vanessa deserves better; we deserve better,” Bryant said.
Data shows that of, every 20,000 incidents of sexual assault, only 5,000 will be reported. And only 500 of those cases will be sent to courts-martial, Speier said.
“The military’s approach has failed, an epic moral failure that is a stain on military leadership,” she added.
A culture of sexual harassment and assault has also existed for too long at the VA, said Brownley, who chairs the Women Veterans Task Force.
One in four female veteran employees experiences sexual harassment throughout the department, she said.
“This is unacceptable,” she added. “The agency responsible for providing health care and benefits to survivors of military sexual trauma is also the site of continued violence and trauma.”
Brownley recently joined House and Senate colleges in a bipartisan letter urging VA Secretary Robert Wilkie “to act swiftly” on policies to address sexual harassment at the VA.
The VA “doesn’t tolerate harassment and has championed several efforts to prevent it,” VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement to Military.com.
“Women are not only coming to VA for health care, they’re coming here to lead it,” Noel said. “Women are sixty percent of our workforce, and that includes the first female acting deputy secretary in VA history.”
Noel added that the VA will continue transforming the department to meet the needs of those who have worn the uniform and “this includes serving women veterans with the respect and dignity this country owes them.”
In January, however, Wilkie came under fire from VA Inspector General Michael Missal, who criticized him for suggesting that congressional staffer Andrea Goldstein, a Navy Reserve lieutenant, made “unsubstantiated claims” that she was groped and sexually harassed at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center in September 2019.”
— Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Mission SA: Female airmen organize honor walk for murdered Fort Hood soldier, raise awareness about sexual misconduct.”
August 4, 2020 | LinkSharon Ko |
“SAN ANTONIO — Four service members organized an honor walk to remember Vanessa Guillen, the Fort Hood soldier who was murdered. The event also raised awareness about sexual harassment and assault in the military.
The 37th Training Wing hosted the event at its Warhawk Fitness Center track between July 25-26. More than 200 people participated by taking different shifts to walk a 24-hour period.
The event was spearheaded by four women. They were two members of the Inter American Air Force’s Academy team, Technical Sgt. Alejandra Avila and Staff Sgt. Soleine Izquierdo. The third organizer was a member from security hill, Staff Sgt. Monique McDonald. The fourth organizer was a Military Working Dog handler, Staff Sgt. Melissa Garcia. Garcia shared why she wanted to support the fallen soldier.
“Being part of the Latino community, knowing that Vanessa is also from Texas a Texas native, it was very important for me to highlight her story, honor her service and show the family we’re here to support them,” said Garcia.
During the walk, some of the participants wore t-shirts with the phrase #ReformTheCulture. Garcia explained the meaning behind those words.
“We wanted to show the Air Force that this new military that’s coming in, and the new military that’s going to continue to come in, that we will have a zero tolerance to sexual assault, sexual harassment,” said Garcia. “We are going to be held accountable for our actions.”
The 37th Training Wing’s leadership team also, spoke at the event. They shared opening and closing remarks on topics of sexual assault and other issues that impact Airmen.
“It’s always powerful to see our people come together and rally around a cause,” said Chief Master Sgt. Stefan Blazier, 37th TRW command chief in a statement. “It is needed now as much as ever, because it’s the only way that pain can become purpose.”
The 37th Training Wing said one airman who participated in the event ran and walked the entire 24-hour period and completed a total of 82 miles.”
“Guillen’s suspected killer was placed under the watch of an unarmed escort.”
“Sexual assault in the American military surged in the last two years, driven almost entirely by a 50 percent increase in assaults on women in uniform, according to a survey released on Thursday by the Defense Department.
The department’s annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Militaryestimated that there were 20,500 instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in the 2018 fiscal year, based on a survey of men and women across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. That was an increase of 38 percent from the previous survey in 2016.
The grim data provide considerable ammunition for critics in Congress and veterans’ groups who have pressed repeatedly to change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault crimes. They want authority over such cases shifted away from military commanders and into the hands of an independent prosecutor’s office.
“These aren’t just numbers, these are people’s lives,” said Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, who has pushed to remove the authority from commanders.
The issue took on added political visibility in March when Senator Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona, said publicly that she had been raped by a superior officer and had suffered numerous sexual assaults while serving in the Air Force. She has opposed shifting authority over sexual assault cases away from commanders.
The survey found that while assaults on men in the military remained flat, assaults on women recorded their biggest increase in years.
Women now make up only about 20 percent of the military, but are the targets of 63 percent of assaults, the survey found, with the youngest and lowest-ranking women most at risk.
Overall, one out of every 16 military women reported being groped, raped or otherwise sexually assaulted within the last year.
“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, said in a message to senior military leaders this week. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on.”
The secretary proposed a list of actions, including better tracking and training, and a new program to identify repeat offenders even if their victims do not want to come forward.
The figures come from a survey of about 100,000 active-duty troops, which the department has conducted every two years since 2006. The latest results are not the worst — assault rates were higher in both the 2006 and 2012 surveys. But the Pentagon has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into prevention efforts, education programs and resources for victims in recent years. It now has legions of sexual assault specialists and victims’ advocates, and the Army has even developed a hologram of an assault victim to help with training.
Still, the report noted that the latest data suggests current strategies are not enough.
“We’ve thrown about $200 million at this problem for eight to 10 years, and this report suggests it’s not working,” said Ms. Speier. Along with Senate Democrats, she has repeatedly introduced legislation that would create an independent prosecutor, but, she said, the military has always lobbied against eroding commanders’ authority, and the bills have languished.
“Now people that have opposed the legislation are starting to come around,” Ms. Speier said. “People are starting to see we need to do more.”
Opponents, including many in Congress, argue that military commanders are in the best position to understand individual cases, and that bringing in an outside prosecutor could tie their hands.
A separate report in January showed that the number of sexual assaults at the nation’s service academies had risen by 50 percent since 2016, suggesting that the problem is just as widespread among the military’s future leaders as it is in the current ranks. It was also in line with high rates reported at civilian colleges and universities.
The military-wide survey data released this week indicates that alcohol use remains a stubborn contributing factor, and was involved in 62 percent of assaults on women.
Assaults increased across all branches, but the Marine Corps, which has proportionally more young, low-ranking troops and far fewer women than the other services, reported by far the highest rates. One in 10 surveyed women in the Marines reported being assaulted, twice the rate of either the Army or the Air Force.
“Sexual assault erodes the trust and cohesion within the Marine Corps team, degrades our lethality and readiness, and is incompatible with our core values of honor, courage and commitment,” the Marine Corps said in a statement. “In the end, this is an issue of trust — trust that fellow Marines will look after each other.”
The survey found that the rate of assaults on men in the military was much lower than on women. Overall, about one in 100 surveyed men said they had been assaulted in the last year, with the highest incidence reported in the Navy.
While the survey found that troops were experiencing more assaults, they were somewhat less likely than before to report them. The reporting rate, a barometer for the troops’ confidence that the military will punish assaulters and protect victims — fell to 30 percent in fiscal 2018 from 32 percent in 2016.
That’s still much better than the estimated 7 percent reporting rate in 2006, according to the new report. But Don Christensen, a retired Air Force judge and chief prosecutor, said that a large majority of victims do not trust the system.
“It shows the old ways aren’t working, and it’s getting worse, not better,” said Mr. Christensen, who is now president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for military victims of sexual assault.
Victims are often reluctant to come forward, he said, because “they are afraid the case won’t be handled well, and they are afraid they will be retaliated against.”
He noted that, according to the latest figures, there were about 6,000 unrestricted reports of sexual assault in the military in the latest year. But at a briefing on Thursday, he said, Defense Department officials said that only about 300 cases had been prosecuted.
The Pentagon’s report notes that the military took “disciplinary action” of some kind in 65 percent of cases in 2018, a slight increase from 2017. But nearly all of that punishment was meted out by commanders at their discretion outside the court system, Mr. Christensen noted, and could be as minor as a stern admonishment.
“Commanders are basically being asked to practice law without a license,” he said. “It’s complicated, it takes up a lot of their time. It’s time to give this over to professionals.”