Family of Spc. Vanessa Guillen fights for justice one year after slaying

Backed by other family members and attorney Natalie Khawam, right, Spc. Vanessa Guillen's sister Lupe speaks at a news conference marking the first anniversary of the Fort Hood soldier's killing, April 22, 2021, at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON — Exactly one year after the brutal slaying of Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood in Texas, her family lamented Thursday that they had achieved no justice — through the courts or Congress.

Guillen’s family gathered with their attorney at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., at 11 a.m. — the same time a year ago that her friends and family began to suspect something was wrong. They traveled to Washington this week to push lawmakers to adopt the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, a bill to change how the military handles sex offenses.

Guillen’s two sisters spoke through tears at a podium with a poster-size photo of Guillen in her Army uniform taped to the front.

“It’s not fair that we have to keep asking for justice, asking for answers, asking for change,” said Mayra Guillen, her sister. “All I ask for today is please don’t forget her name. Don’t forget her story.”

Guillen, 20, was killed by a fellow soldier April 22, 2020. She had told her family that the suspected killer, Spc. Aaron Robinson, had sexually harassed her. Robinson is suspected of killing her with a hammer in an arms room and burying her body near a river off base.

Guillen’s body was found after a two-month search, and Robinson shot himself dead when confronted by local law enforcement in Killeen, Texas. Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, was accused of helping him dispose of Guillen’s body. Her case has not yet gone to trial.

The slaying sparked outcry across the country and prompted service members to share their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Just weeks after Guillen’s body was found, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act. However, it failed to gain momentum in Congress.

The legislation would establish independent investigators and an independent prosecutor within the military who would be responsible for handling sex offenses. Guillen’s family believes she didn’t report her sexual harassment because she was afraid of retaliation. The only solution is to remove the process from the chain of command, they said.

“Enough is enough,” said the family’s attorney, Natalie Khawam. “If we don’t have this legislation pass, we’re going to read about more deaths in our military. Young men and women serving in our military need to be protected, so we’re not up here with another family and another face.”

Speier and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., expect to reintroduce the bill next month. Khawam said they’re waiting on the results of a Pentagon review of sexual assault in the military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin launched the 90-day review in March. It’s being led by Lynn Rosenthal, a longtime advocate for survivors of gender violence and the first White House adviser on violence against women.

Khawam said she believes the results of the review will speak to the need for the type of reform included in the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act.

“We believe that they’re going to come back and say that everything needs to be changed, that there are enough voices, enough evidence and enough data to prove the need for change,” Khawam said. “We believe the recommendations are going to be in the favor of adopting the legislation.”

Since Guillen’s death, the Army has made changes to its sexual assault and harassment response program and implemented a new missing persons policy. It’s also working on restructuring the Army Criminal Investigation Command, known as CID.

Her death also inspired the creation of an independent review committee to examine Fort Hood. It found soldiers at the base did not have confidence in the Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP. Army officials said Friday that they are in the process of overhauling the nearly 10-year-old program, but that SHARP must remain while the new program is created.

In a statement on Twitter, Army Secretary John Whitley said Thursday morning that the Army was looking to redesign its SHARP program, as well as implement recommendations from the independent review committee.

“Sexual assault and harassment cannot be tolerated,” Whitely said.

Lupe Guillen, the 17-year-old sister of Vanessa Guillen, was offended by the timing of the statement, she said. His Tweet was later deleted.

“He decided to Tweet that out today — my sister’s day,” Lupe Guillen said. “No matter how much you develop the program, it’s at a military base, inside the Armed Forces. It’s not going to work, it’s ineffective.”

Khawam and Lupe Guillen also criticized President Joe Biden for not responding to their requests to meet with him this week about the legislation.

“I ask you to please support us in this fight for justice,” Lupe Guillen said in a message to the president. “Vanessa cannot speak now, but I can. You can.”

A trial has not been set for Aguilar, who is charged in connection with Guillen’s death. It has been pushed back multiple times since her arrest last year.

“A year later, we don’t have a trial finished, we don’t have anything,” Khawan said. “We have a family that’s still in mourning, begging our country to do something.”

Candlelight vigils for Guillen were planned Thurdsay evening in major cities across the country, including Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Austin.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling   

Spc. Vanessa Guillen's sister Mayra, left, is comforted by family attorney Natalie Khawam during a news conference marking the first anniversary of the Fort Hood soldier's killing, April 22, 2021, at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.