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Supporters of military justice reform marched last year in Washington to call for justice for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed at Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2020. The group called on Congress to pass legislation that would create an independent prosecutor to decide whether or not cases of sexual assault and harassment should be tried.

Supporters of military justice reform marched last year in Washington to call for justice for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed at Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2020. The group called on Congress to pass legislation that would create an independent prosecutor to decide whether or not cases of sexual assault and harassment should be tried. (Photo provided by Natalie Khawam )

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday making sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The executive order also will strengthen the military’s response to domestic violence and instances of service members sharing “intimate visual images” without permission, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Psaki said the order was created in honor of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old small arms repairer who was killed by another soldier in 2020 after being sexually harassed.

“This historic addition to the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] honors the memory of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, whose experience with severe sexual harassment was followed by a brutal murder, catalyzing national attention to the scourge of sexual violence in our military,” she said.

An estimated one in four women and one in 16 men experience sexual harassment within the Defense Department, according to a study last year by Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank. One in 16 women and one in 143 men experience sexual assault.

After Guillen’s killing, female service members and veterans used the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen to share their own stories of sexual harassment and assault while serving in the military. Lawmakers and advocates called for change to the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assaults, describing the moment as a “reckoning.”

Guillen’s family celebrated Biden’s order Wednesday and they said it contained some provisions included in the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, which was introduced in Congress to change how military sexual assault is prosecuted.

“This is a very emotional and a very proud moment for my family,” Guillen’s sister Mayra said in a written statement.

Some of the measures in the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act were already enacted by Congress through the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Through the NDAA, which sets the Defense Department’s annual budget and includes a slew of defense-related policies, Congress approved significant changes in December to how the military prosecutes major crimes, including rape and sexual assault.

Under the new law, commanders will be removed from prosecution decisions for those cases. Instead, each military branch will establish a new Office of Special Trial, independent of the chain of command, to oversee them.

The new law also addresses sexual harassment. Lawmakers moved to make sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The law states allegations of harassment must be reviewed by independent investigators. How the executive order differs from the new law was unclear Wednesday afternoon.

“The Biden-Harris administration thanks Congress for its bipartisan commitment to pass monumental reform to the military justice system,” Psaki said Wednesday when discussing the order.

The order hadn’t been publicly released late Wednesday afternoon, and other details of its contents, such as the potential penalties for sexual harassment and domestic violence, were not known.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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