Written by John Winer
October 2, 2020
Lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would transform the way the military deals with sexual assault and harassment allegations following a female soldier’s death that shook the country. The proposed changes would also include the creation of offices within the military branches that would investigate sexual misconduct accusations and make recommendations for prosecution. Allegations are currently handled by commanders within units that often include both the victim and perpetrator, which some say creates a lack of trust and a culture of retaliation and pressures victims not to report abuses.
The “I am Vanessa Guillén Act”, in honor of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén would change how sexual assault and harassment claims from U.S. service members are reported and handled in the military. According to the Washington Post, the bill would make sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice and move prosecution decisions of sexual assault and harassment cases out of the military chain of command. In the military judicial system, the commanding officers review the criminal investigation’s results and decide whether to convene a court-martial to prosecute the charges. The bill would also require an independent prosecutor’s determination as to whether a case moves forward and provide an opportunity for victims to file claims with the Department of Defense for compensation. It would also launch an external review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office of the military’s sexual harassment response program and its protocols for missing persons.
The bill comes as a response to the disappearance and death of Vanessa Guillén, who was a 20-year-old Army Specialist stationed at Fort Hood, an Army base located in Killeen, Texas. In April, she was reported missing from the army post, having been last seen in the parking lot of her squadron’s headquarters on April 22. Before her disappearance, her family claimed she had told them that she was being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier and was scared of reporting the incident because of potential retaliation. Protesters and mourners across the nation took to the streets as remains found near the army post were confirmed to belong to the missing soldier.
Many criticized the speed of the investigation into her disappearance while others called for the military to reform its investigations into sexual assault allegations. Following her death, a fellow Army Specialist, whom police had identified as the main suspect in Guillén’s case, died by suicide. Her family believed Guillén had been planning to file a sexual-harassment complaint against him, which may have motivated him to commit his actions. Following her death, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy spent time at Fort Hood, listening to concerns from service members and the surrounding community about changes that could be made. He found that the base had some of the highest numbers of sexual assault, harassment, and killings in the U.S. Army.
According to the Military Times, some are referring to this as the military’s “Me Too” moment and say lawmakers should take full advantage to amplify it and cause the kinds of changes that should take place. According to a Pentagon report released earlier this year, rates of sexual assault and harassment reports in the military increased since 2019. The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2019 report on sexual assault in the military revealed that there were close to 8,000 sexual assault reports involving service members as victims or subjects. It also indicated that the military received more than a thousand formal sexual harassment complaints, a 10% increase from 2018. According to the report, most military sexual assaults happen between service members who work or live nearby, and “when unit climates are tolerant of other forms of misconduct, risk of sexual assault increases.” For active-duty women, those who experience sexual harassment had a three times greater risk of sexual assault than those who did not, and often experienced retaliation when reporting any incidents of harassment or assault.
The “I am Vanessa Guillén Act”, is a step in the right direction in addressing the violence that occurs in the military and can save lives and help keep our women and men of the Armed Services safe. Earlier this month, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, explained that the bill would come to the House floor for a vote soon. “Justice is needed for Vanessa, and for the many service members facing an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our armed forces, too often in the shadows,” she said. “Congress will not stop until we have finally, fully ended this epidemic – in the military, in the workplace, and all places.”