Sosa: Do better for our soldiers, #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN

Columnist Zoami Calles-Rios Sosa encourages you to fight for a bill that will protect women and men from sexual assault in the military in the name of Vanessa Guillen.

I am aware there will always be people who do bad things. I know no matter how good a system or society we come up with, there will be those who decide to hurt others or themselves. I find it hard to fully grasp how is it possible we let women and men be molested, harassed and raped in our military? How is it that we let those that sign up to protect our country, our values, our very lives, be robbed of their own by other soldiers? 

I think it’s time we reassess what’s truly important and make big changes to this system. We cannot let our soldiers continue to suffer in silence because “that’s just the way things are” or “things have always been this way.” Just because things have always been a certain way does not merit the continuation to be so. Sexual assault on our soldiers needs to stop, and it is up to us, as individuals, to make sure it happens.

I wrote a while back about how mobilization (protests, marches, petitions, etc.) can create lasting change. Even at the most basic mobilization actions, such as signing a petition, you can participate in the change that needs to happen. 

Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen

Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen was brutally killed in the military base Fort Hood in Texas on April 22. She was just 20 years old. Her dismembered body was not found until June 30 (but was verified later), pending forensic results. According to reports by investigators, Guillen was lured into the armory by request to service a gun. There, she was brutally murdered with a hammer and her body dismembered by a fellow soldier, Aaron David Robinson, and his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar. He committed suicide, but his girlfriend is behind bars, awaiting her trial.

Before her death, Guillen had started to show the symptoms that come with sexual harassment and assault. A once outgoing and happy young woman had turned into a withdrawn and anxious one. Her mom had started to notice the change. She tried to get Guillen to tell her what was going on. In an article about Guillen, we learned a sergeant was harassing her. Also, Robinson walked in on her while she was in the shower and sexually harassed her. 

Failure of Justice

An NPR article finds 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men reported being sexually harassed at some point in their lives. Given my own experience as a woman who was sexually harassed and knew of family and friends who have had similar stories, these statistics do not surprise me.

In 2019, there were 7,825 formal reports of sexual assault. These numbers were 3 percent higher than in 2018. However, in 2018, a survey finds that 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped. That means in 2018 only about 37 percent of all sexual assaults were officially reported. The conviction rates were 9 percent for 2019. Out of 100 sexual assaults that happen, 63 perpetrators get to walk away with no punishment. Out of the 37 that do get an official report, only three get to walk away with a slap on the hand or other mild retribution. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a failure of justice on our part.

Fort Hood Nightmare

Fort Hood should be a place where America’s pride is displayed, but instead, it’s often considered a “black hole where careers get stuck.” David Green, a former Fort Hood senior noncommissioned officer, spent 11 years there and said “everyone could tell a story of something bad that happened at Hood.”

At this base in 2015, a sergeant was convicted of sex trafficking female soldiers. This is the kind of thing you can’t make up. Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen was a man who was once in charge of coordinating the sexual assault prevention program in Fort Hood. He was caught, but if the stats hold at 63 percent of all sexual assault offenders are walking around free, which include many in positions of power, then it is likely nothing will happen. This is why it is essential to remove the chain of command reporting for sexual misconduct. If the very same people you are to report to have vested interest in not stopping the sexual harassment or abuse, what’s left for you to do?

A Bill of Hope

The Military Justice Improvement Act has been sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee since 2016. If passed, this act would take the prosecution of sexual assaults and other serious crimes out of the chain of command. It would leave it to other professional military prosecutors to decide how to proceed. This bill had bipartisan support; why hasn’t it passed? Perhaps Guillen would still be with us if this bill was in place.

Due to the unprecedented amount of attention the killing of George Floyd brought to the issues of people of color and civil rights, the hashtags #FINDVANESSA and #JUSTICEFORVANESSA have also made it to the national level. It has brought forward a new and reinforced movement toward making a change in how the military treats sexual assaults. 

The #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN bill takes a similar approach to the Military Justice Improvement Act, except the third party overseeing the sexual complaints is outside the military. The hashtag also sparked an outpour of sharing sexual assaults experienced by women in the military. Some of those stories are hard to read. I’m left wondering why haven’t we fixed this? 

The #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN bill is to be introduced to Congress on July 30

What Can We Do?

No one should have to suffer sexual assault. In every environment, from our caretakers to our religious leaders to our jobs and everywhere else in between, it is no surprise it happens in our military branches. However, we can do better.

For those risking their lives so we may continue to enjoy our freedoms, we must do better. I know the hurdles are hard. I understand the change that needs to happen won’t be overnight, but we have to start somewhere. We can begin by calling our representatives and demanding they vote to pass the #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN bill.

These seemingly small acts can be the difference between the status quo or the change we need. Of course, if you can join peaceful protests or organize your own, that’s even better. The more pressure we can create, the better the chance for the change we so much need. Nothing will change until the laws change.