A new push for justice and accountability at Fort Hood

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Last week in Washington, a bipartisan group of Congressmembers unveiled the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.” The bill was filed to address the murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén, who was stationed at Fort Hood, and it provides a new reporting procedure for sexual assault and harassment claims from military service members. While this is a welcome step forward to achieve justice for Guillén, there are still very troubling concerns about the safety of service members at the Texas military base.

The “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act” was introduced by California Democrat Rep. Jackie Speier and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a Republican from Oklahoma. At a press conference announcing the bipartisan legislation, Speier spoke about the Houston native, and the wake of activism sparked by her death. “I Am Vanessa Guillén has become a rallying cry across the country for survivors speaking out against the toxic rot in the military around harassment and sexual assault,” said Speier on the steps outside Congress.

Vanessa Guillén disappeared in April. According to her family, she told them she was being sexually harassed at Fort Hood. Her body was found in June just outside the base.

In the wake of Guillén’s disappearance, demonstrations, rallies, and protests proliferated around the country. Men and women who experienced sexual harassment in the military came forward and the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillén became a rallying cry.

As awareness of Guillén’s disappearance and death grew, it also shed a light on an ongoing crisis at Fort Hood. This year, 28 soldiers have died on the military base in Killeen, Texas. Five of those deaths were from homicide. Since 2016, more soldiers from Fort Hood have died from homicide than battle.

The family of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, found in August hanging from a tree in Temple, Texas, has accused the army of creating an inhospitable environment around Fort Hood. According to family members, Fernandes was humiliated after a senior superior assaulted him, and experienced bullying and hazing.

Attorney Natalie Khawam, who represents both the Fernandes and Guillén families, posted a statement on her Twitter account. “Sergeant Fernandes is the thirteenth soldier to have been [sic] vanished or been killed this year alone. He was last seen on August 17th and declared missing on August 19th after reporting sexual assault, being hospitalized for seven days, and being transferred to a new unit. Congress must to [sic] act now and pass the #IAmVanessaGuillén bill to protect our soldiers.”

Rep. Speier and seven other Democratic members of Congress traveled to Fort Hood last weekend. In a press conference outside the base, several congress members reported unsafe and hazardous living conditions in the barracks. Rep. Ayanna Pressley pledged that she and her colleagues would continue to press for “transparency and accountability” at the army base. 

In Texas, several Democrats have been vocal about demanding justice when it comes to Fort Hood. Julie Oliver, a Democratic challenger, to U.S. Rep. Roger Williams has pressed for an investigation into Fort Hood. Williams represents the district that encompasses Fort Hood. Oliver has also promised to sign on as a co-sponsor of the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act.” It is not clear whether or not Williams would do the same when the bill gets a vote in Congress in either October or after the November election.

Keke Williams, who is challenging State Rep. Brad Buckley, has been speaking frequently with the Guillén family, and she has attended numerous demonstrations, vigils, and rallies for Vanessa. A former combat veteran, Williams is angling to represent a state house district that encompasses a portion of Fort Hood.

State Rep. César Blanco, a Navy veteran and Texas Senate candidate, said he will file a bill in the next Texas legislative session named after Guillén to “protect victims/witnesses of sexual assault from retaliation for reporting sexual assault and ensure justice is served.”

With fewer than 43 days until the election and with the recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, co-sponsors of the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act” are hoping for a vote soon. Pelosi’s office provided a statement after she met with the Guillén family: “I gave the family my commitment that this important first step to combatting sexual harassment and assault would come to the House Floor for a vote, but the Congress will not stop until we have finally, fully ended this epidemic – in the military, in the workplace, and in all places.”

In a statement to the Texas Signal, Rep. Joaquin Castro, the Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and an original co-sponsor of the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act,” applauded the leadership of Rep. Speier, and the commitment to a vote from Speaker Pelosi. Noting how the bill would overhaul how the military handles claims of sexual assault and harassment, Castro emphasized the importance of an independent system.

“My first hearing as a member of Congress on the House Armed Service Committee was about military sexual trauma at Lackland Air Force base in my district in San Antonio — that was seven years ago, yet the problem still persists today,” Castro said. “SPC Vanessa Guillén’s brutal murder has sparked a national movement for change and become a catalyst for long-overdue systemic reform. Military leadership has repeatedly failed to reduce violent crime at Fort Hood, and we must end the horrific cycle of harassment, assault, and retaliation against victims who speak out and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

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