New legislation named after Fort Hood soldier Spc. Vanessa Guillén would revamp how the military addresses sexual assault and harassment in its ranks.
Prosecutors claim another soldier murdered Guillén, 20, in an armory and then dismembered her body in the spring. Before she disappeared, she told her mom that she was experiencing sexual harassment from an Army sergeant but was concerned about the ramifications of filing a complaint, Guillén’s family claims.
That’s why a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act on Wednesday in an attempt to create an independent system that service members have confidence in, according to Rep. Jackie Speier, the chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee.
“I Am Vanessa Guillén has become a rallying cry across the country for survivors speaking out against the toxic rot in the military around harassment and sexual assault,” Speier, a Democrat from California, said during a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “Sexual assault and harassment that they have endured at the hands of their brothers and sisters in arms.”
The measure would make sexual harassment a punishable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and would also permit those who were sexually harassed or assaulted to file claims within the DoD for compensation.
Furthermore, the legislation would also demand independent investigations outside of the chain of command by “trained and experienced professionals,” said Speier.
“This is the military’s MeToo moment, and we are going to take full advantage to amplify it and to cause the kinds of changes that we believe should take place,” Speier said.
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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met with the Guillén family on Wednesday, and has committed to bring the legislation to the House floor, Speier said.
The measure is co-sponsored by more than 70 members in the House including Reps. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, John Carter, R-Texas, Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Pete Olson, R-Texas, Jason Crow, R-Colo., and a companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.
“The rot has festered for generations, and that data proves what survivors have been telling us for years: what we have been doing is not working,” Speier said.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” Speier said. “We’re not going to tolerate it anymore.”
Guillén first disappeared on April 22 and her remains were found by the Leon River Texas roughly 20 miles away from Fort Hood. It wasn’t until July that the remains were identified as Guillén’s.
Natalie Khawam, the attorney for the Guillen family, told Army Times in July that Guillén was attacked with a hammer and her body was dismembered with a machete.
Her death prompted the Army to launch investigation examining Fort Hood’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, program in June. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., announced in August that the Government Accountability Office is also conducting a probe of the program.
Additionally, Army Futures Command leader Gen. John Murray has been tapped to complete an investigation examining Fort Hood’s chain of command and House lawmakers announced this month they were similarly launching an investigation into how the installation has addressed missing persons cases and deaths this year.
Although Fort Hood commander Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt was supposed to head to Fort Bliss to head the 1st Armored Division, the Army announced he would remain at Fort Hood as the Army’s investigation continues. The Army said that the decision shouldn’t be viewed as a penalization.
“We have an investigation ongoing at Fort Hood, and we want to make sure the investigation is complete before we move the officer,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told reporters this month.
Now, Maj. Gen. John B. Richardson IV is serving as acting senior commander of Fort Hood and deputy commanding general for operations of III Corps, and Efflandt is now working with the III Corps.
Guillén is far from the only one to have experienced sexual harassment within the military. In July after Guillén’s body was found, hundreds of survivors of sexual assault and harassment shared their stories via social media using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen.
“Enough is enough. We didn’t have to lose Vanessa,” Khawam said at the press conference Wednesday. “We didn’t have to lose any of these soldiers. They go and they sign up to fight for our country, to take a bullet for our country. Not to get sexually harassed and sexually assaulted.”
“Shame on anyone who doesn’t sponsor this bill,” Khawam said. “Shame on them, and we want them to be known. Because this bill protects our military and we have a duty to them. They fight for us. It’s time we fight for them.”