Another Suspicious Death at a Texas Military Base Shows the Urgency of Addressing Military Sexual Harassment and Assault

Protesters at a protest for justice for Vanessa Guillén at the Staples Center on July 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Rich Fury / Getty Images)

Last week, mourners attended a memorial service for Pvt. Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz, who was found dead last month at the same Texas military base where U.S. Army Soldier Vanessa Guillén was brutally murdered in 2020. Ruiz’s death has renewed focus on the Army’s handling of sexual harassment—since before her death, Ruiz had told several family members and friends that she had been sexually harassed. Before she was killed, Guillén had also reported to her supervisor two instances of sexual harassment by a fellow soldier, but he and other officials failed to report the harassment up the chain.

“The comments [Ruiz’s] mother made were eerily similar to Vanessa Guillén’s mother’s comments,” said Domingo Garcia, the president of the civil rights group the League of United Latin American Citizens.

In the case of Guillén’s murder, just last month a judge delayed the sentencing of Cecily Aguilar, the woman accomplice of Army Specialist Aaron Robinson, who has pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and making false statements. Together, Robinson and Aguilar dismembered Guillén’s body and buried her remains along the Leon River in Killeen, Texas, where she was eventually found.

Texas state Representative Josey Garcia (D) recently introduced House Bill 2248 , which would recognize “Vanessa Guillén Day” annually on Sept. 30 and aims to “increase awareness of and the military’s response to missing persons, sexual assault, and sexual harassment cases for service members.” 

The death of two military members in less than three years at the Fort Hood Army post underscores the need for the military to take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual assault and harassment, and prioritize the safety and well-being of all service members. It also highlights the military’s failure to provide evidence-based treatment for survivors of assault. 

Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz. (Courtesy of the Basaldua Ruiz family, via NBC News)

For many service members, estimated at 1.3 million active duty personnel, the reality of military sexual trauma, and retaliation after reporting, is all too familiar. 

  • In a recent study, 15.7 percent of military personnel and veterans reported military sexual trauma (MST), which includes both harassment and assault—3.9 percent of men and 38.4 percent of women.
  • The Department of Defense’s annual Sexual Assault and Prevention Report showed an increase in the rates of unwanted sexual contact among military service members, with the Navy having one of the worst rates.
  • More than half of all female services members who report sex crimes, also reported a negative outcome, according to a 2016 Oxford study.

These distressing statistics highlight the need for increased mental health support for those affected by this trauma, particularly during National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.

Although various efforts have been made to address the issue of sexual assault in the military, such as introducing a more user-friendly survey method, the prevalence of MST seems to be rising. 

Addressing Sexual Assault and Harassment in Military Ranks

As a Marine, I have heard the stories of sexual assault and harassment and have seen firsthand the devastating effects it can have on those who experience it. And the handling of these cases has been inadequate. Several Marines who reported sexual assault to their chain of command have been discharged under a “personality disorder,” instead of receiving the support and justice they needed. Around the same time of Guillén’s murder, two different female Marines who had previously come forward with assault allegations—Celese Largo at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., who reported being raped in 2015 by her supervisor, and Thae Ohu of Chesapeake, Va., who said she was raped by a fellow Marine—were slapped with their own assault charges.

As a society, many expect the military to be a bastion of strength, honor and valor. Many hold service members in high regard and honor their bravery and sacrifice. However, when sexual assault, harassment and retaliation occur within the ranks of the military, it goes against everything the military stands for. It is time for the U.S. military to recognize this problem and provide evidence-based therapies and resources to service members who have experienced this devastating trauma. 

A major challenge in addressing this trauma in the military is the issue of trust. Many victims of sexual assault and harassment report they do not believe that the military will protect them or ensure their safety after reporting an incident. This lack of trust is particularly pronounced among female service members, with less than 40 percent of them having confidence in the military to treat them with respect and dignity and 60 percent not trusting that their safety will be ensured after reporting an assault. 

There are several organizations working to provide evidence-based PTSD services for veterans who have experienced military sexual assault, such as The Trauma Recovery Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which provides specialized care and support to military veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma; the Trauma and Resiliency Program at the Boston Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, which offers evidence-based treatments and support groups for veterans with similar experiences; and the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center, where I serve as outreach manager. Veterans and service members who use the Road Home Program never receive a bill for their treatment, removing the financial burden that can often prevent individuals from seeking care.   

The work of these organizations is a vital step towards ensuring service members have access to the support they need to heal from the trauma they have experienced. But one of the challenges is ensuring that service members are aware of these types of programs.

Mental health treatment specific to military sexual trauma is critical for those affected, and must be a priority for the military, as well as for society. More resources must be available to those who have experienced sexual trauma, including the need for comprehensive mental health care.   

The military should offer greater outreach efforts to inform service members and their families of the resources available to them and for commands to be receptive to the information. 

Service members must also have the assurance that they are protected from sexual violence and harassment while serving our country.  

It is time for the military to take meaningful action towards creating a culture that values respect and accountability and put an end to the epidemic of military sexual trauma.

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Ashton Kroner is a United States Marine Corps veteran and outreach manager at the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center. She is a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.