Bipartisan Legislation Marks a Turning Point for Military Sexual Assault

Congress Calls for a Turning Point for Military Sexual Assault
vanessa-guillen-military-sexual-assault-memorial-day-military-justice-improvement-and-increasing-prevention-act
A memorial for Vanessa Guillén. (Alan / Flickr)

Update on June 24 at 12:45 p.m. PT: On Wednesday, June 23, lawmakers introduced the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, bipartisan legislation that would move the decision to prosecute serious crimes in the military from the chain of command. The bill also contains plans to improve training on sexual assault response, living accommodations on bases, and professional development for prosecutors.

The bill was co-introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif) and Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio); companion legislation in the Senate is known as the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act and is sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

The legislation’s introduction comes on the heels of a historic statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin calling for improvements in “accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support” on behalf of military sexual assault survivors.


Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén disappeared last year from her job at an armory at Fort Hood military base in Texas. Two months later, her remains were found near the Leon River in Bell County, Texas. According to a federal complaint, another enlisted soldier Spc. Aaron Robinson had bludgeoned her with a hammer, removed her body from the base in a large cargo box, and then dismembered and burned her remains. Afterwards, he and his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, disposed of the body. Robinson later killed himself.

Before her death, Guillén had told her friends and family members that a superior officer (not Robinson) had sexually harassed her at the base, but she feared reporting the abuse to her chain of command. Her death prompted service members to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment on social media using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen.

An extensive investigation later found a “permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment” at Fort Hood and major structural flaws in the system for reporting abuse that left women “vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and re-victimized.” The investigation resulted in the firing and suspension of 21 officials, including two generals.

Congress Calls for a Turning Point for Military Sexual Assault
vanessa-guillen-military-sexual-assault-memorial-day-military-justice-improvement-and-increasing-prevention-act
A rally in D.C. in 2020 for the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Guillén’s case has become a turning point in the long campaign to address sexual assault in the military. The case moved Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst to finally join long-standing advocate for reform—Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.)—to introduce the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act into Congress on April 29. Senator Ernst—who is a sexual assault survivor and the mother of a female West Point cadet—is the first and only female combat vet among Republican senators. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, and Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) then introduced a bill to address military sexaul assault—the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act—in the House on May 13 with 173 co-sponsors.

Senator Gillibrand’s bill would remove prosecutorial decisions for serious crimes out of the chain of command and give it to independent military prosecutors under the supervision of appointed military prosecutors.

“Sexual harassment in the military is an epidemic,” said Sen. Gillibrand at a bipartisan press conference in front of the Capital on April 29. “It has been for a very long time….[soldiers are] more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow service member than to be shot by the enemy at war.” Senators Gillibrand and Ernst were joined at the press conference by a bipartisan group of Senators—including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Mark Kelly, and Sen. Ted Cruz.

Rep. Speier’s bill would make sexual harassment a standalone offense within the Uniform Code of Military Justice and move prosecution decisions of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases out of the chain of command, as well as establish a process for compensating servicemembers who survive sexual violence when the military has been negligent. It also reforms the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), along with several colleagues including Sen. Gillibrand, introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate the same day.

“One year after the senseless murder of SPC Vanessa Guillén, and after two damning reviews, the need for fundamental reform of the military’s approach to sexual assault and sexual harassment has never been more urgent. Military leadership has had decades to solve this problem, yet continues to fail. Toxic command climates, rampant sexual violence, lack of accountability, and retaliation against survivors continue to worsen,” Chair Speier said. “Congress must enact these reforms this year to achieve justice for Vanessa Guillén and all survivors of sexual violence. We must send a message to all servicemembers about the nation’s expectations for their conduct and the culture of the military. Congress must pass the I am Vanessa Guillén Act this year.”

The number of sexual assaults reported in the military has persistently risen over the years. In 2019, the Pentagon reported that 20,500 service members—13,000 women and 7,500 men—had experienced some form of sexual assault—a 38 percent jump from a similar survey conducted in 2016. The anonymous survey revealed that one quarter of all women across the military experienced sexual harassment, with increases across all four branches of the military and highest in the Marine Corps. Most of the assaults happened to service members 17 to 24, by perpetrators known to the victims. The majority of these assaults occurred at a military facility or onboard a ship. The report also showed a record low rate of conviction for sexual assault.

“We have got to get to the heart of that issue, and that simple move will be by taking the prosecution — that decision making authority—out of that commander’s hands [and] putting it with a specialized prosecutor,” said Sen. Gillibrand, who chairs of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. Sen. Gillibrand plans to put the bill into the National Defense Authorization Act, before the Senate this fall.

Congress Calls for a Turning Point for Military Sexual Assault
vanessa-guillen-military-sexual-assault-memorial-day-military-justice-improvement-and-increasing-prevention-act
A rally in D.C. in 2020 for the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

“This is a broken system that punishes victims while allowing most perpetrators to escape any consequences for their actions,” said Senator Gillibrand and Rep. Speier in a letter to President Biden in February applauding his decision to form a commission on sexual violence in the military.

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military (IRC) has recommended taking sexual assault out of commanders’ control. The IRC is chaired by Lynn Rosenthal—a longtime advocate for survivors of gender violence and the White House adviser on violence against women during the Obama administration.

On April 23, the IRC recommended that independent judge advocates, not commanding officers, should decide whether to pursue legal charges in sexual assault cases. The independent military lawyers would report to a special victims prosecutor, who would decide whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment and hate crimes. The IRC also recommended that substantiated sexual harassment cases result in mandatory separation from the military. If a case involves low-level misconduct by a lower ranking service member, the recommendations allow alternatives such as a training intervention program. The panel also recommended expanding military protective orders off base.

“This is a big moment for all of us,” says Nancy Parrish, the founder and CEO of Protect Our Defenders, the leading national human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual violence in the military. “An opportunity for real lasting change to fix a broken military justice system that has caused so much pain for so many.”

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.