WASHINGTON, DC -- A year after U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén’s death in Texas, which spurred a movement against sexual assault and harassment in the military, federal lawmakers on Wednesday morning renewed efforts to reform — and add external accountability to — the way the military deals with such behavior.
Congressional lawmakers said there is bipartisan support on in both the U.S. House and Senate for a military justice bill that would move the decision to prosecute serious crimes in the military from the chain of command.
The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act is named after Guillén, who went missing at Texas' Fort Hood for about two months before her remains were found late last June.
Guillen was killed by a fellow soldier, who her family says sexually harassed her, and who killed himself as police sought to arrest him. Her death put a spotlight on violence and leadership problems within the U.S. Army.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a news conference Wednesday said the bill “is written specifically to create a bright line at all serious crimes to protect both plaintiffs and defendants, to deal with two grave injustices that we have evidence.”
“We have evidence from the DOD and the unbelievable scourge and unwillingness of the command to prosecute sexual assault and to take these crimes seriously,” the senator added.
This comes as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says he will support long-debated changes to the military justice system that would remove decisions on prosecuting sexual assault cases from military commanders.
In a statement Tuesday, obtained by The Associated Press, Austin says he supports taking those sexual assault and related crimes away from the chain of command, and let independent military lawyers handle them.
Currently, the military investigates and prosecutes these cases completely internally — which advocates say is burdened by a lack of expertise, bias and weak punishments. Military commanders decide whether a case goes to trial or whether to handle it behind closed doors. Advocates say cases are underreported because soldiers fear retaliation or don’t think they’ll get justice — both of which exacerbate the problem.
In Austin this year, the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed state Senate Bill 623 to similarly add outside accountability to the Texas Military Department, which oversees the Texas Army National Guard, the Texas Air National Guard and the Texas State Guard. That bill, titled the Vanessa Guillén Act, would establish a sexual assault coordinator outside the chain of command to provide services and would send sexual assault cases to the Texas Rangers to be independently investigated.
“From personal experience as a veteran … there’s a culture there in the stigma that disincentivizes the reporting of sexual assault or harassment,” said state Sen. César J. Blanco, D-El Paso, who introduced SB 623. “The legislation is absolutely needed to protect service members and begin to change the military culture, and it’s my hope that Congress passes it this year.”
After Guillén’s death,the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee — made up of civilians — created a report uncovering a pattern of sexual harassment and assault and violence that has persisted for years. In response to Guillén’s death, 14 U.S. Army leaders, including commanders and other leaders at Fort Hood, were fired or suspended. But advocates say the problem is bigger than Fort Hood — that sexual harassment and assault are widespread throughout the military.
The Pentagon reported in 2019 that an estimated 20,500 service members experienced some form of sexual assault. That figure represents 13,000 women and 7,500 men and is 37% higher than was reported in 2017.
“I absolutely support [the federal bill],” said Amy Franck, founder of Never Alone, an advocacy group working to end sexual harassment in the military. She said it’s a good first step to reducing harm in the military and that “progress doesn’t happen like a light switch.”
She calls the current system allowing the military to investigate itself “absolute lawlessness” and says the bill would make a drastic change to how these cases are dealt with.
“But we still have got to address the fact that these service members’ civil rights are being violated when they become victimized,” she said.
The officials who deal with sexual assault cases within the military are ill equipped to help victims and often cause more harm, she said. Service men and women can be punished for inconsistencies in their accounts — despite suffering from trauma — and are sometimes encouraged to speak without an attorney present, leading to more fears of retaliation for reporting. There isn’t enough promotion of other resources available, such as the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, a coalition of rape crisis centers.
Gillibrand’s bill has enough bipartisan votes to pass, according to NPR. U.S. Sen Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is among the vocal supporter’s of the measure.
“I’m going to predict by the end of this Congress, we’re going to pass this bill,” Cruz said at an April news conference. “And, it’s about damn time.”
The Guillén family has continually advocated for reform after Vanessa Guillén’s death, meeting with lawmakers and speaking out against abuse. Their family has advocated for both the federal and state legislation and has given its blessing that both bear Vanessa Guillén’s name.
“We must be the voice, be the change and honor my sister. No one deserves to die the way she died,” Vanessa Guillén’s sister, Lupe Guillén, said last month. “No one deserves to suffer the way my sister suffered. No one. So please advocate for this legislation because we must save those who are saving our lives.”