Since her death last year, the name Vanessa Guillén has become a rallying cry to demand justice in a system that has failed far too many. Last weekend around the state of Texans and throughout the country, thousands of mourners gathered at vigils to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Private First Class Guillén.
On April 22, 2020, 23-year-old Guillén was reported missing. According to her family, she told them she was being sexually harassed at Fort Hood. In the weeks following Guillen’s disappearance, demonstrations, rallies and protests were across the nation. The hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillén proliferated online as men and women who experienced harassment in the military came forward.
Last June, remains found near Fort Hood were identified as Guillen’s. In Texas, several lawmakers demanded accountability from Fort Hood for what happened to Guillén, part of a disturbing pattern of violence endemic to the military base. In December, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy announced sweeping changes at Fort Hood after the release of a 136-page report from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee (FHIRC). McCarthy also announced that fourteen leaders from Fort Hood were fired or suspended.
While many activists and lawmakers applauded the changes at Fort Hood, most believe it’s not enough. A new report from The New York Times shows that since 2016 more troops from Fort Hood “have died in homicide on and off the sprawling Army base than have died in combat zones.” Just this year, Fort Hood has reported five homicides, seven suicides, eight accidents, and five deaths that are still being investigated.
Last week at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol, several democratic lawmakers discussed legislation surrounding military sexual assault reporting filed this session alongside members of the Guillén family. Senate Bill 623, authored by state senator Cesar Blanco, includes several provisions for military bases in Texas to follow after a member of the military reports sexual assault. SB 623, also known as Vanessa Guillén Act, unanimously passed the Texas Senate and is now advancing through the House.
House Bill 2526, filed by State Rep. Victoria Neave, would designate September 30 (Vanessa Guillén’s birthday) as Vanessa Guillén Day. Lupe Guillén, the sister of Vanessa, spoke alongside several members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) about the justice that was denied to her sister. “My anger and my frustration is the same. It’s not fair that my sister was murdered. That she had to be murdered for everyone to realize there’s issues,” said Lupe Guillén.
Last year, bipartisan legislation was filed in Congress that would mandate new reporting procedures for sexual assault and harassment claims from military service members. One of the co-sponsors of the bill, also known as the “I Vanessa Guillén Act,” U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier met with members of the Guillén family, and pledged to keep fighting for passage of the legislation according to a statement from her office.
As I told Vanessa’s father and sisters yesterday, I will never give up my fight to get the I am Vanessa Guillén Act passed in the House and Senate so that Vanessa’s memory lives on and no other family is forced to suffer the anguish, heartbreak, and betrayal they have endured by the very people who should have been there for Vanessa when she came forward and kept her safe,” said Speier.
At Fort Hood, the military base erected a gate and plaque to memorialize Guillén.
Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images