In the midst of a continuous and unrelenting struggle to dismantle systemic racism in this country, the United States government has failed yet another woman of color. On April 22nd, 20-year-old Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén was last seen at the U.S. Army Base, Fort Hood, in central Texas. She was declared missing the next day, which started a whirlpool of a faulty investigation alongside national outcry.
On June 29th, over two months after Guillén’s disappearance, investigators announced the discovery of unidentified human remains at the Leon River, about 20 miles from the Fort Hood base. In the first week of July, these remains were confirmed as the body of Guillén. They were able to conclude that Guillén had been brutally bludgeoned to death, dismembered, and placed near the river.
Investigators say that they were able to identify the main suspect—Specialist Aaron Robinson—within five days of Guillén’s disappearance. Robinson has now been identified as the murderer.
On June 30th, just one day after the reports of the human remains were found at Leon River, Robinson ran from his post and snuck off the base, only to later shoot himself when confronted by the police east of Fort Hood the next morning, according to a USA Today report.
Hours later, police also identified a second suspect, Cecily Anne Aguilar, a 22-year-old Killeen, Texas resident and the estranged wife of another soldier on base. Aguilar helped dismember and discard the body after Robinson confided in her that he had killed Guillén by striking her with a hammer in the armory where Robinson and Guillén both worked. She has been charged with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence for helping dispose of Guillén’s body, adds the USA Today report.
Guillén’s remains were found in the exact spot that agents had been standing on top of in an earlier search, according to The Washington Post.
However, these discoveries were not uprooted swiftly. Guillén’s family has publicly criticized the Army’s handling of the investigation, stating the mountainous weeks of gaps and delays of breakthroughs in the case. They’ve radically expressed the lack of urgency and the static quality of its progress as developments took weeks to present. The family was faced with over two months of leads before any key factors came to light.
“They had no sense of urgency from the very beginning,” Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group focused on sexual harassment and assault in the military, told The Washington Post.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)’s CEO, Sindy Benavides, claims it took too long for the military to announce that foul play was involved in the disappearance.
“‘It was really almost two months later when they finally said that there was foul play that was involved. That really made us wonder […] if the proper protocols were followed,’” she said to ABC News.
Guillén’s family members have led the public outcry. Her mother, Gloria, accused Fort Hood officials of lying to her, calling them “clowns in a circus.” The day Guillén’s remains were found, Gloria and the family announced they were seeking a congressional investigation into the disappearance, because of the lack of answers from Fort Hood.
Guillén’s sisters, Mayra and Lupe, have also actively been exceedingly public with their thoughts. “She was taken away from me in the most horrible way, yet they take it as if it was a joke,” Lupe told ABC 11. “‘Clearly, they’re not capable of anything… because they didn’t get answers. They had two months. Two months. And that’s a disgrace.”
It was not until Guillén’s family and local community members, including activist groups, put pressure and publicized her disappearance by working hard to plant the case into the country’s consciousness that the Army started to accelerate the process of the case. Specialist Guillén’s case drew national attention and an uproar of calls for change in Congress, receiving attention from civilians, politicians, activist leaders, and celebrities, including Salma Hayek, who started an Instagram campaign to publicize Guillén’s death.
According to an NBC News report, Guillén’s friends, family and supporters have, “used social media, as well as staged protests and held vigils, plastered billboards with her image, engaged politicians, created petitions to the White House, while raising questions about other cases of missing Fort Hood soldiers.”
Guillén’s case has also raised questions and public outcry about the treatment of women in the military, including harrasment and sexual assault. Before Guillén’s dissaperance, she told her family members that she had been facing sexual harassment and abuse from a soldier on base, but that she was too afraid to go to a higher chain of command to report it.
“She was afraid to report it. She reported it to her friends. She reported it to her family. She even reported to other soldiers on base, but she didn’t want to do a formal report because she was afraid of retaliation and being blackballed, and she, like most victims, just tried to deal with it herself,” Lupe Guillén, 16, told ABC News on July 1st.
Vanessa Guillén’s sexual harassment claims, which have been suggested by investigators wasn’t about Robinson, but about a sergeant and supervisor on base, are what assisted in fueling the public attention, even sparking up a social media hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, in which women who served or are currently serving in the military bravely spoke about their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault while on duty and how their superiors handled them.
Lupe Guillén said the hashtags #FindVanessaGuillen, #IamVanessaGuillen and #WeAreVanessaGuillen have become a sounding board for other military members who say they’ve been victims of sex-related crimes while on duty.
Unfortunately, this is not the first story about the injustice of women, especially women of color, that ends in a tragic death for those who have devoted their life and heart to serve the country, only to be neglected and disregarded in return.
In 2005, LaVena Lynn Johnson, a black 19-year-old Army soldier, was found shot dead inside a burning tent in Iraq. She had a broken nose, bruising all over her face and body, and acid burns on her genitals. And yet, the Army investigated and ruled it as a suicide, despite pleas from her father, John Johnson, who begged for a deeper dive into the investigation as a homicide instead of a suicide. Johnson continuously asked the Army for evidence that points to a suicide, in which they would not give him. Johnson wholeheartedly believes that his daughter was raped and murdered, and the death was covered up.
Almost no evidence of how Johnson’s body was found pointed to a suicide, as her arms were too short to use an M-16 gun that was found beside her lifeless body, there was no suicide note, and the bullet that killed her was nowhere to be found. There wasn’t even a rape kit done to her body or fingernail scrapings taken, as is usually protocol. To this day, the Army continues to emphasize their decision of the death of LaVena Johnson as a suicide.
The Guillén family continues to press for justice for Vanessa. They are pushing for Congress to pass legislation that would “mandate the creation of a third-party entity where military members could report sexual assault and harassment without fear of reprisal or neglect within their chain of command,” reports Army Times.
Natalie Khawam will be presenting this bill, entitled the “I am Vanessa Guillén” bill and looking for support in Congress and the president.”Vanessa Guillén dedicated her life to serving our country,” Khawam said. “America looks forward to Congress passing our bill and the president singing it into law so this injustice never happens to another soldier ever again.”
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy has said he will recommend to the Department of Defense that they do a thorough and independent review of Guillén’s death. He also announced that he has “ordered the creation of a commission to do an “independent, comprehensive review of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood,” as well as of the surrounding military community.”
The Army states that the goals of this commission will be to investigate whether the climate and culture of Fort Hood and the military community, “’reflects the Army values, including respect, inclusiveness, and workplaces free from sexual harassment.’”
Women like Vanessa Guillén and LaVena Johnson have been failed by the U.S. Army. Their precious lives have been ripped from the planet too quickly, and utterly unfairly. We can only hope that the circumstances of their deaths have bled enough into the public consciousness for citizens and politicians alike to continue to question and check the Army’s protocols and attitudes toward the sexual harassment of women on base, stronger treatment of cases for women of color and trans women, and the hierarchy of commands when it comes to reporting such cases.
To help Vanessa Guillén, you can call the House/Senate Armed Services Committee and demand a congressional investigation on the Army’s handling of the case at 1-855-906-4925. You can sign the petition to hold the army accountable here.
To help LaVena Johnson, you can sign the petition here to re-open her case.
Image via Elle Magazine/U.S. Army + Twitter
By Mandy Figueroa