In a July 30 speech in Washington, D.C., just about a month after her daughter Vanessa Guillén’s remains were found, Gloria “Mamá” Guillén was clear in her demand: She wanted Fort Hood closed. Vanessa Guillén experienced sexual harassment before she disappeared from the Killeen, Texas, Army base on April 22.
But the base has continued to operate, despite a string of homicides, suspicious deaths, and violent crimes that have solidified Fort Hood’s reputation as the most deadly and violent military base in the nation. In an attempt to hold Army senior leaders accountable, organizations that rallied around the Guillén family in the wake of Vanessa’s death are holding a people’s tribunal Thursday outside the state capitol in Austin.
The Working Families Party and Vets for the People are organizing the trial, which will feature testimony from military veterans and survivors of sexual harassment and assault in the military, as well as attendees who will serve as jurors and give “rulings” on charges like criminal negligence. The people’s tribunal is a result of Congress’ failure to put Fort Hood senior leaders on public trial, said Pam Campos-Palma, a veteran and senior political strategist for the Working Families Party. But it’s also an attempt to continue uplifting the stories of soldiers like Vanessa Guillén and Sgt. Elder Fernandes, Fort Hood soldiers who both suffered harassment on base.
“What I hope is that the people’s tribunal calls attention to the lack of accountability on behalf of high-ranking officials for the harassment, sexual abuse, and death that have become part of the culture of the base,” said Campos-Palma. “Congress cannot keep abdicating its job by protecting the careers of generals and not the safety of every day soldiers, the Army cannot be allowed to continue investigating itself, and Fort Hood cannot be reformed; it must be shut down,” she continued, noting that these power dynamics ensure families like Guillén’s are denied justice.
Before Vanessa Guillén disappeared from Fort Hood on April 22, she reported to friends and fellow soldiers that she was experiencing sexual harassment. The specialist’s remains were found June 30 near the Leon River in eastern Bell County, about 20 miles from Fort Hood. According to a federal complaint, Guillén is believed to have been murdered by fellow soldier Aaron Robinson, a 20-year-old who reportedly killed Guillén with a hammer and hid her body in a large box in Fort Hood’s armory before dismembering and burning Guillén’s remains with the help of his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar. Before Robinson could be charged, he died by suicide.
On Aug.19, Sgt. Elder Fernandes was missing for more than a week before his body was found hanging from a tree almost 30 miles from Fort Hood in Temple, Texas. In May, the 23-year-old soldier reported that he had been “inappropriately touched” by a male superior at Fort Hood. Fernandes was reportedly transferred to a new unit, where news of his abuse spread and he was “harassed, bullied, and hazed.” The Army Criminal Investigation Command reportedly investigated Fernandes report of sexual abuse and said it was “unsubstantiated.”
According to Protect Our Defenders, the only national organization dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military, 20,500 servicemembers were sexually assaulted or raped in 2018, an almost 40% increase from 2016. Seventy-six percent of service members did not report their abuse in 2018. One-third of servicememembers who do report sexual abuse or harassment are discharged, typically within seven months of making a report.
“Some 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States military are people of color,” The New York Times reported, which means servicemembers of color bear the brunt of the military’s systemic sexual violence—this includes first generation Americans and immigrants.
Gloria Guillén, a Mexican immigrant, was undocumented when she first began speaking out against Fort Hood and demanding justice for her murdered first generation American daughter. Fernandes was born in the Republic of Cape Verde and his family migrated to the United States when he was 10 years old.
Latinx people have the highest rates of enlistments into the military, Campos-Palma told Prism, and the promise of free health care, education, and immigration status has become a “powerful recruitment tool.” This is part of the reason Campos-Palma and thousands of other veterans and service members signed a grassroots letter doubling down on the demands of the Guillén family, including calling for a halt to all new enlistments in the military.
“In Vanessa’s case, you see very clearly that the systemic sexual violence and systemic racism in the military that contributed to the Army not believing this young Latina soldier was actually sexually harassed and missing,” Campos-Palma said.
Priscilla González, the campaigns director at Mijente, an advocacy organization for the “Latinx and Chicanx community,” told Prism that her organization has been “acting in solidarity with” the Guillén’ family. As part of Mijente’s work, González said they want to make it clear that it is “no longer tolerable” for the bodies of Black and Latinx servicemembers to be “used, abused, and disposed of.”
“When stories like Vanessa Guillén’s emerge, it becomes almost too easy to treat them as individual incidents or as isolated events. But we cannot divorce what is happening at Fort Hood and what happened to Vanessa from the racist, state-sanctioned violence that has been laid bare for the American public to reckon with,” González said.
The organizers, advocates, and participants behind Thursday’s people’s tribunal hope to make these connections clear. Melissa Bryant, a U.S. Army veteran and a veteran’s advocate and consultant, said she wants people to understand what servicemembers are up against when they experience sexual assault and abuse.
Bryant said women like Guillén often do not report sexual abuse or harassment to their chain of command because they fear retaliation in their unit. According to Protect Our Defenders, it is “highly unusual and heavily scrutinized” for a person to “jump the chain,” meaning to approach a level above their immediate superior without permission.
As long as this structure is maintained, servicemembers will fear retaliation for reporting sexual abuse and harassment. But there is a remedy for this, Bryant said: Sexual harassment could be treated as its own separate crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act would make sexual harassment a punishable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and would require an independent investigations into sexual abuse allegations outside of the chain of command. Without this shift, Bryant said there will continue to be no real repercussions for service members accused of threatening and harassing other servicemembers.
Bryant, who testified at a congressional hearing in July about sexual harassment and retaliation, told Prism that when servicemembers experience sexual abuse it can feel like “there is nowhere to turn,” and Vanessa Guillén is a prime example of how soldiers are failed.
“Vanessa’s bill was introduced during a very tumultuous time in our country’s history and I’m fearful that its viability is becoming slim,” Bryant said. “But I want to urge people to push for this bill and to continue to demand that the entire chain of command at Fort Hood be held responsible. Just like our country needs a racial reckoning, the military needs a sexual assault and trauma reckoning and we have to keep fighting for this because it is our Black and brown service members who are the most vulnerable.”