Vanessa Guillen was a U.S. Army Specialist who went missing from Fort Hood in Texas on April 22, 2020. Specialist Aaron Robinson was a suspect in her killing, but he fatally shot himself as police were approaching to arrest him.
Guillen’s disappearance and murder sparked a storm of advocacy, leading to protests and a proposed bill to combat military sexual harassment. The legislation, called the I Am Vanessa Guillen bill, would allow military service members to report sexual harassment to a third party, which would conduct the investigation.
Guillen’s family has said she was sexually harassed before her brutal murder. Guillen grew up in Houston with five siblings, and decided she wanted to join the military when she was a young girl.
Her case is being examined on ABC 20/20 in a two-hour special, “I Am Vanessa,” which airs at 9/8 C Friday, September 11, 2020.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Vanessa Guillen Grew Up in Houston With 5 Siblings & Was Interested in the Military Since Childhood
Vanessa Guillen was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and grew up in a family of five siblings. Guillen’s mom, Gloria Guillen, told The New York Times her daughter had interest in joining the military since she was a young girl. As a child, Vanessa often played with her brother’s toy pistol.
Gloria Guillen had reservations about her daughter joining the military, she told The Times, but Guillen joined the U.S. Army when she was 18, shortly after her graduation from César E. Chavez High School in 2018. She enlisted and became a a private first class assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, working to repair small arms and artillery. She was close to achieving the rank of specialist when she died.
Gloria Guillen told ABC 20/20 her daughter was a “beautiful angel who served a nation.” She added that her daughter is “a soul who saved many girls from so much evil.”
2. Guillen Was an Athlete Involved With Sports & Always Wore a Virgin Mary Necklace
Guillen was an active and athletic 20 year old when her life was cut short. She enjoyed weight lifting and played soccer, and ran on cross country teams, The New York Times reported.
She also went to church regularly with her mother, Gloria Guillen. Vanessa always wore a gold necklace of the Virgin Mary. Now, the necklace hangs on her memorial, surrounded by angels and Virgin Mary figures, The Times reported.
One of her sisters, Lupe Guillen, told 20/20 she will honor her sister’s legacy by continuing her search for answers.
“She always taught me to never give up,” she said. “I’m trying to be strong and that’s why I’m not going to lose hope until we get justice.”
3. Guillen Told Her Family She Was Having Problems at Fort Hood & Was Being Sexually Harassed
Guillen told her two sisters, Lupe and Mayra, that she was having problems at Fort Hood. She told them and several of her fellow soldiers that one of her superiors was sexually harassing her. Aaron Robinson, who was identified as a suspect in her murder and died by suicide before his arrest, was not her superior and was not in her chain of command, said Special Agent Damon Phelps of the Criminal Investigation Command during a July 2, 2020 press conference.
Guillen told her sisters and other soldiers she was afraid to report the sexual harassment because she feared retaliation, ABC News reported. Her family’s attorney, Natalie Khawam, told the news outlet a superior had watched Guillen shower.
The U.S. Army said July 6, 2020, it was launching an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations.
“The 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood appointed an investigating team led by a senior Investigating Officer (IO) to conduct a commander’s investigation, referred to as an ‘Army Regulation 15-6 Investigation’ into allegations that Vanessa Guillén was sexually harassed,” the statement said. “An Army Regulation 15-6 investigation is the Army’s standard method of investigation and is used to collect and analyze facts and make recommendations based on those facts. The IO will gather the evidence, thoroughly and impartially consider it, and make findings and recommendations. Once the investigation is complete, the IO will present the findings and recommendations to the unit’s command for his review. Fort Hood units continue to aggressively search for Vanessa Guillén.”
Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, the Army’s provost marshal, who heads the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, told 20/20 they ruled out Robinson harassing Guillen “very early” in their investigation.
4. Guillen’s Death Sparked a Global Outcry & a Proposed Bill to Change the Way the Military Handles Sexual Harassment Reports
Guillen’s murder sparked a social media movement, #IAmVanessaGuillen, a bill by the same name and a wave of protests to support it. The proposed legislation would change the way the military handles reports of sexual assault and harassment, and would allow military service members to report allegations to a third party.
“Vanessa Guillen, U.S Army Soldier, suffered of sexual harassment various times, and now she was taken away from her loved one due of the sexual allegations taken as joke, a humans life is no joke !” a Facebook post on the Find Vanessa Guillen page said. “It is a disgrace for the military tolerating sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and even rape ! What happen to Vanessa Guillen should have never happen and should never happen again ! Please keep sharing and demanding the congressional investigation and for the bill to be passed !”
Protests continue across the country, held as recently as September 7, 2020 in Austin and at the Texas State Capitol.
“They say no soldier left behind, yet they left her behind. They left Vanessa Guillen behind,” her sister, Lupe Guillen, said at a rally, according to KHOU.
5. Guillen’s Murder In Part Prompted a Congressional Investigation Into Fort Hood & The Leadership’s Response
The death of Guillen, in part, prompted Congress to launch an investigation at Fort Hood and the leadership’s response to sexual assault, disappearances and deaths at the Texas U.S. Army base. This year, 28 people stationed at the base have died. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Massachusetts, who heads the Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, who heads the the Committee on Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Military Personnel, announced the investigation Tuesday, September 8, 2020, ABC 7 reported.
The subcommittee leaders sent a letter to Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy seeking information on the deaths. The letter said it would investigate whether deaths “may be symptomatic of underlying leadership, discipline, and morale deficiencies throughout the chain-of-command,” the news station reported.
The letter specifically referenced Guillen, in addition to fellow soldier Private Gregory Morales, whose remains were found in June while investigators searched for Guillen. He had been reported missing in August 2019. The letter also referenced Private Mejhor Morta and Sergeant Elder Fernandes, whose deaths are still under investigation, in addition to the homicide investigations of Private Brandon Scott Rosecrans, Specialist Freddy Delacruz Jr. and Specialist Shelby Tyler Jones. Fort Hood had the “highest, the most cases for sexual assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation of the US Army,” the letter said.
Natalie Khawam, Guillen’s family attorney, told ABC 7 she is glad Congress has agreed to investigate.
“Our soldiers and their families deserve the truth,” she said.