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House to vote on ‘transformational’ change for reporting military sexual assault

Lupe Guillen, 16, attends a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, September 16, where lawmakers introduced a bill named for her sister. Spc. Vanessa Guillen was killed in April at Fort Hood, and her family said she had been the victim of sexual harassment.

NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 16, 2020

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has committed to scheduling a vote before the end of the congressional session on the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act — a bill that would revamp the military’s system for reporting and investigating military sexual harassment and assault.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced the legislation Wednesday, along with Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., and 71 other cosponsors. Speier is trying to recruit more Republicans to cosponsor the measure in order for it to be passed under a suspension of the rules — a procedure used to quickly pass noncontroversial bills. That type of motion would require a two-thirds’ majority.

“This is very remarkable, to be able to introduce this bill today and have it taken up before the end of the session,” Speier said. “That means a vote would either be in the next few weeks or in November.”

The sweeping measure would create new procedures for service members to report instances of sexual harassment and assault in confidence and outside of their chain of command. Two years after being enacted, the bill would establish independent investigators and an independent prosecutor within the military who would be responsible for handling sex offenses.

The bill would also allow service members who experience sexual harassment or assault to file claims for compensation with the Defense Department. It orders the Government Accountability Office to study the military’s handling of missing persons cases and its sexual assault and harassment prevention programs.

The bill was born out of the outrage that followed the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen earlier this year at Fort Hood. Guillen, a 20-year-old small arms repairer, was killed by another soldier April 22. She was reported missing in late April, and her remains were found more than two months later in a shallow grave 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.

The news of Guillen’s death and sexual harassment inspired hundreds of veterans to post on social media their own experiences with harassment and assault and expose a larger issue about a victim’s willingness to report these problems.

Spc. Aaron Robinson, a fellow soldier, is believed to have killed Guillen with a hammer in an arms room, and 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. A civilian suspect, Cecily Aguilar, 22, was arrested on three federal charges related to helping Robinson, her boyfriend, mutilate and hide Guillen’s body. On Tuesday, Aguilar’s trial was delayed from Sept. 28 to Nov. 30.

Guillen’s family joined lawmakers Wednesday outside the Capitol to introduce the I am Vanessa Guillen Act. Lupe Guillen, Vanessa’s 16-year-old sister, spoke at the end of the event, tears streaming down her face as she read prepared remarks from her phone. In part, she criticized the Army for tolerating sexual harassment.

“How many more people must die before a system that is broken can be changed?” Lupe Guillen asked.

Nearly 10 years ago, Speier began sharing stories of military sexual harassment with other lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Even at that time, survivors were urging Congress to create an independent system for reporting harassment and assault, Speier said. Democrats and Republicans pushed back.

“For the longest time, the military was successful in arguing that us challenging their chain of command was somehow unpatriotic,” Speier said. “What’s unpatriotic is that we have a dead young service member who didn’t believe in the system enough to report her harassment. This culture is broken. The rot has festered for generations.”

Speier and a group of other lawmakers were planning a trip Thursday to visit the site where Guillen’s remains were found. They’re also going to visit the site where the body of Sgt. Elder Fernandez was found Aug. 25, Speier said. Fernandez, who went missing Aug. 19, died by suicide after reporting abusive sexual contact.

There have been nearly 30 deaths at Fort Hood this year, nine of which occurred under suspicious circumstances.

Guillen’s death prompted at least five investigations into Fort Hood, including one led by Gen. John Murray, commander of Army Futures Command in Austin. Murray is investigating how Guillen’s chain of command handled accusations of sexual harassment in her unit to her disappearance and death to the way the search for the soldier was conducted.

Gen. Michael Garrett, commander of Army Forces Command, pledged to be as transparent as possible on the results of those reports and how any recommendations from them are implemented at Fort Hood and throughout the Army.

However, lawmakers who introduced the I am Vanessa Guillen Act want to intercede and take future investigations of sexual harassment and assault out of the chain of command. Guillen’s family hopes her death can save the lives of other service members, said Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, who spoke briefly on behalf of Guillen’s mother, Gloria.

When asked Wednesday why Congress didn’t act sooner, Mullin responded that it took a tragedy to bring national attention to the issue and garner support for a sweeping measure like the I am Vanessa Guillen Act.

“It took something like the horrific death of Vanessa to bring attention to everybody, and it took her family who said, ‘We’re not going to be silent about this. We’re not going to go away,’” Mullin said. “In her death, she’s going to serve her brothers and sisters in arms for years to come and protect those who may not have had a voice before this.”

Mullin believes the legislation has enough support from both parties to pass whenever brought to a vote. It was uncertain Wednesday when Pelosi might bring the bill to the House floor.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, holds up a sign Wednesday, September 16, at the introduction of the I am Vanessa Guillen Act. Olson and 72 other lawmakers had signed onto the bill Wednesday as cosponsors.
NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES