Specialist Vanessa Guillen’s Impact on the US Army
On April 22, 2020, Specialist Vanessa Guillen headed to the arms room at Fort Hood to confirm the serial numbers of some military equipment. Guillen, a 20-year-old from Houston, had been in the Army for two years, enlisting as soon as she turned 18. However, the young Guillen would not leave the arms room alive on that April day. Instead, her bones and hair were found in a shallow grave at the end of June.
This grisly, devastating case made waves across social media, shared especially by young women in the military. Guillen—who was an athlete, one of six children, and a devout Catholic—was missing for over two months before her dismembered, burned remains were found a few miles from Fort Hood. Fort Hood, a major Army base in mid-Texas, is strangely not unfamiliar with such horrific acts.
Between March and June 2020, five soldiers were murdered at Fort Hood. The details are gruesome: young soldiers and their pregnant girlfriends shot in their own home, dead men tossed on the side of the road, the bones of veterans stumbled upon in lonely fields. Between 2016 and 2021, 159 soldiers at Fort Hood—young, healthy, strong people—died outside of combat. 71 of those deaths were suicides.
But by far, one of the grimmest trends within Fort Hood regards sexual assault. Fort Hood has “the most cases for sexual assault and harassment…for our entire formation of the U.S. Army,” a claim made by U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. This statistic is especially egregious when considering any woman in the United States military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than to be killed in combat. One deployed female soldier laid this fact out in its most fundamental, devastating form: “The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me than the men with whom I shared my food.”
So for Fort Hood, the bustling base surrounded by empty plains, to be an outlier with regard to its pervasive sexual assault is beyond haunting. And the devastating story of Vanessa Guillen, who did everything right in regard to contacting authorities and protecting herself, provides proof.
Guillen reported being sexually harassed by fellow soldiers twice before she was murdered. During the summer of 2019, one of Guillen’s supervisors commented that he wanted to have a threesome with her. Later that year, while working in the field, the same supervisor meandered over to where Guillen was cleaning herself and tried to “watch her wash up.” Both times Specialist Guillen swiftly reported the harassment to higher-ups. Both times her pleas were ignored.
The man who bludgeoned Guillen to death, Specialist Aaron Robinson, had been previously reported for sexual misconduct by another female soldier. He was never investigated nor sanctioned for his abusive behavior.
Robinson was apprehended a mere few hours after Guillen’s remains were found, likely because he was the last person to see her in the arms room. And yet somehow on one of the major bases of the most sophisticated military in the world, Robinson was able to flee and evade the military police long enough to commit suicide. It was later found out from Robinson’s girlfriend/accomplice that he killed Guillen with a hammer in the arms room, wheeled her outside in a large box, and then burned and dismembered her body.
The story is quite familiar: young women surrounded by sexually-abusive men, desperate and continuous pleas for help, radio silence from supervisors, all culminating in pain and death that was so easily preventable. It is made worse, however, because of its proximity to the purportedly honorable, noble United States military—an institution which initially denied that Guillen had been harassed at all.
Although arguably too little, too late, after Guillen was found, an independent review was almost immediately conducted on Fort Hood’s culture of sexual violence. The findings, finally released in August 2022, were profound. McCarthy, the Secretary of the Army, reported that Fort Hood had “a command climate “that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.” A subsequent investigation found Robinson was able to escape justice due to a “breakdown in communication between his unit and criminal investigation agents.” 14 Army officials, many of them high-ranking, were either fired or suspended based on these reports.
Even more influentially, these investigations—including those orchestrated by the Pentagon, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office—yield actual efforts at meaningful reform. Prosecuting service members for sexual assault will no longer be decided by military officials, but independent authorities. The Army published a new policy regarding missing soldiers so that they won’t be automatically labeled AWOL and denied search resources like Guillen was. The Army will also be restructuring its criminal investigation office as well as its sexual assault response and prevention program to better serve vulnerable soldiers. And Fort Hood will now be subject to more advanced, more comprehensive welfare checks to hopefully eradicate the chilling cruelty and sorrow that seems to pervade the base.
Since her death, Guillen’s family has shown they will not only mourn but fight for Vanessa, and millions of women chanted her name in twenty U.S. cities in 2020. Guillen’s death was especially tragic and infuriating for female veterans—particularly the 1-in-3 military women who were raped while in the service. Guillen’s family worked with groups like “My Sister’s Keeper Movement,” an organization dedicated to helping female veterans with sexual trauma, to pass the “I Am Vanessa Guillen Act” in 2021.
The Act criminalizes sexual harassment within the military, moves decisions regarding sexual-assault investigations from military officials to independent investigators, and creates a system to track retaliation against those who reported their sexual abuse. "We lost Vanessa,” Guillen family attorney Natalie Khawam said, “but we gained rights for our military and our service members."