The Military Failed Vanessa Guillen and Others. It Must Do Better.

The Military Failed Vanessa Guillen and Others. It Must Do Better.
A protest for justice for Vanessa Guillen at the state Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on July 25. (Gailya Paliga)

This post was originally published by the North Carolina National Organization for Women. It has been republished with permission.

Vanessa Guillen was a 20-year-old Army private first class when she went missing on April 22 from Fort Hood Army Base in Killeen, Texas. She vanished mid-shift, leaving her car keys, barracks room key, Army identification card and wallet behind at her workspace. The investigation into her disappearance dragged on slowly at best while her family pushed for help and answers. Eventually, investigators found she was murdered by a soldier on base.

Before the murder, Guillen had told her family she had been sexually harrassed by her superiors, but was afraid to report it. Her case and problems with how the military handles sexual assault and sexual harassment sparked protests all over Texas, online and around the country.

A candlelight vigil was held for Guillen and Breonna Taylor in Durham, N.C., on July 5, and at least two have been held in Fayetteville. Anger and frustration with these failures are creating a military #MeToo movement. These continuing failures in the military must be addressed.

The Guillen Family Got Involved

Guillen’s family held vigils and protests of their own at Fort Hood in May, including one on May 22.

“Her family said the protest was a way to bring awareness to her disappearance and for them to call for justice and answers,” according to KCENTV.

In a later interview, Vanessa’s sister, Mayra Guillen, reported her family had conducted at least 10 searches of their own by May 30—including one with over 60 people on May 30 in a park reserve.

Since Guillen’s body was found, protests have erupted all over Texas, and have spread across the country.

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From the time of Guillen’s disappearance, the family had problems getting information and action from the military.

“Investigators moved too slowly to piece together evidence and secure phone data that led to the suspects more than two months after Guillen disappeared,” Guillen family attorney Natalie Khawam told The Washington Post.

The Murder Case

Investigators now have the murder case pretty well put together.  They believe Army Specialist Aaron Robinson murdered Guillen and convinced his girlfriend, Cecily Ann Aguilar, to help him dispose of Guillen’s body.

The investigators used Robinson’s and Aguilar’s phone records to find her body, which had been dismembered and partially burned. Robinson killed himself on July 1 when confronted by authorities.

At the time of her disappearance, Guillen had been expected to be promoted to a specialist within the month. According to The New York Times, after Guillens’ body was found, Fort Hood officials promoted her from private to specialist, effective July 1. (This explains why some articles identify her with the rank of  private first class, while others use the rank of specialist.)

Military Mishandling of Sex Crimes

Vanessa Guillen told her family that she had been sexually harassed by superiors. She didn’t report it, fearing retribution. Reporting sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the military goes up the chain of command—particularly useless if the perpetrator is a superior.

This situation also causes other conflicts of interest—unwanted statistics for superiors, who may lose one or more subordinates if they are involved in the sex crimes.

Online posts of past assaults have only grown since June. At first, the hashtag #NoMas (No More) and #IAmVanessaGuillen, were used mostly by current and past female service members who experienced sexual assault and harassment

#IAmVanessaGuillen went viral before June 22, before she was found. Since Guillen’s slaying was confirmed, servicewomen and servicemen have continued to share their stories online, making this like a military #MeToo movement.

“For some women in uniform, the case is emblematic of a military culture that they say has downplayed or ignored allegations of sexual harassment and assault and created an atmosphere that pressures men and women to keep accusations quiet,” wrote The Washington Post.

According to The New York Times, “Ms. Khawam also called for legislation in Specialist Guillen’s name that would establish better protocols regarding sexual harassment and assault, like allowing members of the military to make reports through a third party rather than having to do so through the chain of command.” 

The Military Has a Duty to Do Better

The social media uproar, pushed by activists and celebrities (such as actor Salma Hayek) as well as other service members, is making a difference. Lawmakers are demanding the Pentagon’s inspector general launch an independent investigation into Guillen’s disappearance and death. Protests and petitions demand investigation and other serious consequences. 

The military needs to take missing person cases more seriously and also communicate better with families. In Guillen’s case, the military didn’t solve her murder until service members blew the story up and shared their stories with the hashtag on social media.

While searching for Guillen, the body of another Fort Hood soldier was found: Private Gregory Wedel Morales—a man who had been missing for a year and branded a deserter. Would that have been Guillen’s fate also if her family hadn’t pushed so hard—to be branded as a deserter, even though she was taken out mid-duty one afternoon and left keys and more behind? Maybe so.

The protocols to report sexual harassment and assault don’t make sense and don’t work. The military must be forced to address these major deficiencies exposed by the gruesome murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen—including slow or negligent investigation of missing persons, lack of communication with families and handling of sex crimes. Otherwise, we are setting our soldiers up to fail.


Gailya Paliga is president of NC NOW (National Organization for Women) and an organizer of the Raleigh Women's Marches. She works pro-actively with other organizations and progressive groups to promote better understanding of local and national issues, and to help events achieve maximum impact.