‘The military failed’: Texas bills target sexual harassment investigation reform in honor of U.S. Army soldier Vanessa Guillén

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Almost one year to the date of her disappearance, new bills aiming to protect service members like U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén are being considered in the Texas legislature and beyond.

Texas Senate Bill 623, now known as The Vanessa Guillén Act, is one of these bills. Legislators said it’s intended to serve as a way for military members to report sexual assault and harassment without fear of retaliation, confidentiality breaches and concern nothing will ever be done.

“With the Vanessa Guillén Act, Texas can lead by example in protecting our Texas military members from sexual assault and ensure swift justice is delivered for victims,” said Texas Sen. César Blanco, who filed the bill.

On Tuesday, members of Guillén’s family joined several Texas lawmakers at the Texas Capitol to highlight the legislation.

“As we stand here, we’re approaching the eve of the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Vanessa Guillén. I can’t help but reflect on how she touched our lives,” State Sen. Carol Alvarado said. “Many of us will not forget the two months that she was missing — the military’s extremely slow reaction and lack of urgency. We called, we wrote letters, we marched, we protested, we put things on social media to elevate Vanessa. This ordeal has opened our eyes to the shocking gaps in the Army’s procedure — or lack thereof — when it comes to sexual harassment and assault.”

Texas lawmakers and members of the Guillén family meet at the Texas Capitol on April 20, 2021 to discuss the bills filed in honor of Vanessa (KXAN/Wes Rapaport)

Guillén’s case rose to international attention in April 2020 after she went missing from Fort Hood, Texas, and then again in July, when her remains were discovered along a Bell County river.

Suspects in the disappearance are Spc. Aaron David Robinson, 20, and Cecily Aguilar, his girlfriend. Robinson died by suicide in July 2020 after fleeing the base, while Aguilar faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of conspiracy to tamper with evidence. Robinson reportedly admitted to Aguilar that he killed Guillén.

Guillén’s family has repeatedly said that she was sexually harassed, including a claim that a higher-ranked soldier walked in and watched her showering. Despite this, U.S. Army officials have said they found no evidence of sexual harassment, either by Robinson or others.

Nevertheless, her family and many lawmakers are still working to get justice.

“It [the U.S. military’s handling of Vanessa’s case] revealed a deeply rooted, systemic, toxic culture of sexual harassment… the military failed Vanessa Guillén, plain and simple.”

STATE SEN. CAROL ALVARADO

Blanco, meanwhile, said that as a veteran, he has also seen the way chain of command fails women and men when it comes to assault and harassment.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to change the culture in the military,” Blanco said. “This is important. We’ve got to do this, we can’t ignore this. We have to honor the life of Vanessa Guillén and other victims who’ve been impacted by military sexual assault.”

The day before, a ceremony was held at Fort Hood to unveil a new access gate honoring Guillén. Her family attended, saying they hoped the memorial would serve as a reminder of the sexual harassment they say she endured.Fort Hood unveils gate named in honor of U.S. Army soldier Vanessa Guillén 

“They will remind themselves: that if they know somebody going through the same situation my sister went through, to speak up, to tell someone,” said Lupe Guillén, Vanessa’s sister.

Nationally, the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act” — introduced to U.S. Congress in September — would direct military leaders to launch investigations of sexual harassment and assault complaints, but ensure they are carried out by independent investigators who are outside a victim’s chain of command.

On Tuesday, Guillén’s family and legislators implored the federal government to pass the act.

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