Lawmakers used the murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen as a rallying cry Tuesday to call for an end to the culture of sexual harassment and assault that has plagued the U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Supporters holding posters of the 20-year-old Fort Hood, Texas, soldier, who was allegedly slain by a male service member, surrounded lawmakers, including Reps. Jackie Speier and Julia Brownley, both D-California, and Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol.
"Hashtag I am Vanessa Guillen has become a rallying cry for survivors of ... sexual harassment and sexual assault that they have endured at the hands of brothers and sisters in arms," Speier said, describing how many victims are now speaking out about the "military's failure to hold assailants and harassers accountable."
Guillen, a 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier who disappeared April 22, was allegedly murdered by Spc. Aaron Robinson, according to a July 2 criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas.
Robinson shot and killed himself when confronted by local police. Two days later, federal authorities filed a criminal complaint charging 22-year-old Cecily Aguilar, a civilian and the estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier, with conspiracy to tamper with evidence in Guillen's disappearance.
Robinson told Aguilar that he killed Guillen "by striking her in the head with a hammer" while on post April 22, then smuggled her body to a remote site in Bell County, according to the complaint. Aguilar allegedly helped Robinson mutilate and dispose of Guillen's body.
Natalie Khawam, an attorney representing Guillen's family, has alleged that Robinson sexually harassed Guillen. Fort Hood and Army Criminal Investigation Command officials maintain that there is no credible evidence that Guillen was the victim of sexual harassment.
Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on military personnel, called this a "watershed moment" in the fight against sexual harassment and assault.
"We all know that sexual harassment is often the first act of ... a predator who is probing to move onto sexual assault," she said.
Guillen told her family that she experienced sexual harassment, but "she did not have faith in the institution to file a report," Speier said.
On July 10, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced that he had ordered an independent review of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood in connection to the Guillen case.
Army veteran Melissa Bryant, who serves as the national legislative director of the American Legion, called for passage of "meaningful legislation that will remove unlawful command influence and bias" when dealing with reports of sexual assault and harassment crimes -- an entrenched culture that has "has plagued our military justice system and has discouraged women veterans and service women for reporting these incidents."
"Vanessa deserves better; we deserve better," Bryant said.
Data shows that of, every 20,000 incidents of sexual assault, only 5,000 will be reported. And only 500 of those cases will be sent to courts-martial, Speier said.
"The military's approach has failed, an epic moral failure that is a stain on military leadership," she added.
A culture of sexual harassment and assault has also existed for too long at the VA, said Brownley, who chairs the Women Veterans Task Force.
One in four female veteran employees experiences sexual harassment throughout the department, she said.
"This is unacceptable," she added. "The agency responsible for providing health care and benefits to survivors of military sexual trauma is also the site of continued violence and trauma."
Brownley recently joined House and Senate colleges in a bipartisan letter urging VA Secretary Robert Wilkie "to act swiftly" on policies to address sexual harassment at the VA.
The VA "doesn't tolerate harassment and has championed several efforts to prevent it," VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement to Military.com.
"Women are not only coming to VA for health care, they're coming here to lead it," Noel said. "Women are sixty percent of our workforce, and that includes the first female acting deputy secretary in VA history."
Noel added that the VA will continue transforming the department to meet the needs of those who have worn the uniform and "this includes serving women veterans with the respect and dignity this country owes them."
In January, however, Wilkie came under fire from VA Inspector General Michael Missal, who criticized him for suggesting that congressional staffer Andrea Goldstein, a Navy Reserve lieutenant, made "unsubstantiated claims" that she was groped and sexually harassed at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center in September 2019.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.