Family of Vanessa Guillen announces legislation, demands change
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 30, 2020
WASHINGTON — The 16-year-old sister of a slain Army specialist took the stage in front of 100 people on the National Mall in Washington on Thursday and fervently demanded Congress pass reforms to prevent more deaths.
“This has to stop,” Lupe Guillen said. “Fort Hood should be held accountable. Their leadership has to be held accountable. They signed to protect and respect every soldier, but they didn’t protect my sister, they didn’t respect my sister.”
Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old small arms repairer stationed at Fort Hood, was killed by another soldier April 22. She was reported missing in late April, and her remains were found more than two months later about 20 miles from the base. Guillen’s family has said that she faced sexual harassment on base but was too afraid to report it.
“My sister didn’t report it,” Lupe Guillen screamed to the crowd Thursday. “Why? Because she was afraid to. She was afraid of retaliation.”
Guillen’s family, along with their attorney, Natalie Khawam, gathered outside the Capitol on the National Mall to announce the #IamVanessaGuillen bill. The measure would allow service members to file claims of sexual harassment and assault to a third-party agency, rather than through the chain of command, Khawam said.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, attended the rally in support of the family, as did dozens of other people from as far as Texas and California. Following speeches from Lupe Guillen and Vanessa Guillen’s mother, Gloria, the crowd marched to the White House. The Guillen family met with President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon to present him with their bill.
“I’m grateful for the president to be hearing me,” Lupe Guillen said. “I’m not nervous to speak to him, because this has to stop.”
The family met with Trump in the Oval Office for about 30 minutes Thursday afternoon, and Gloria Guillen, crying, spoke to him using a translator.
“She wants your help to bring justice for what happened to her daughter,” the translator told Trump.
Trump responded: “It hit me very hard. I saw what happened to your daughter Vanessa, who was a spectacular person. I invited you to the White House. … We didn’t want to have this swept under the rug, which could happen.”
Trump said the family had his support.
“This was a very horrific situation,” Trump said. “It impacted me. So we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
In addition to announcing proposed legislation, the Guillen family again demanded a congressional investigation into Vanessa’s death. As the family was speaking to the crowd in Washington on Thursday, the Army announced they would launch an independent review of Fort Hood.
The panel that will investigate the base includes five lawyers who are not in the military. The group will look into base's culture and report their findings to James McPherson, undersecretary of the Army, and Gen. Joseph Martin, the Army’s vice chief of staff.
In a statement Thursday, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said, “The Army is committed to taking care of our soldiers, civilians, families and soldiers for life, and this independent review will explore the current command climate and culture at Fort Hood.”
The Guillen family was critical of the Army and the Army Criminal Investigation Command for not responding fast enough to find Guillen when she went missing in April.
Spc. Aaron Robinson, a fellow soldier, is believed to have killed Guillen with a hammer in an arms room, and then moved her body to a site along the Leon River. When confronted June 30 by local law enforcement in Killeen, Texas, Robinson shot himself in the head and died. Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, was being held without bail on three federal charges related to helping Robinson mutilate and hide Guillen’s body.
Mayra Guillen, another of Vanessa’s sisters, said Thursday she was proud of her sister for joining the Army. Now, however, she regrets not talking her out of it. Lupe Guillen said none of Vanessa Guillen’s superiors approached the family at her memorial to offer condolences.
“I don’t want to see another man or woman dead at Fort Hood,” Lupe Guillen said. “I don’t want to see another man or woman sexually harassed or assaulted at Fort Hood. They treated my sister like she was a nobody. The Army sees her as an object, a number.”
Activists hold signs depicting Spc. Vanessa Guillen at a rally Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Guillen's family said Vanessa, who was slain at Fort Hood in April, told them she was being sexually harassed but was too afraid to report it.
NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES