The Military Failed #VanessaGuillen and Others, Must Do Better

Vanessa Guillén was a 20-year-old Army Private First Class when she went missing on April 22, 2020, from Fort Hood Army Base. She vanished mid-shift, leaving her car keys, barracks room key, Army identification card and wallet behind at her workspace. The investigation into her disappearance dragged on slowly at best while her family pushed for help and answers. Eventually, investigators found she was murdered by a soldier on base.  Before the murder, Guillén had told her family she had been sexually harrassed by her superiors, but was afraid to report it. Her case and problems with how the military handles sexual assault and sexual harassment sparked protests all over Texas, online and around the country.  A candlelight vigil was held for her and Breonna Taylor in Durham on 7/5/20, and at least two have been held in Fayetteville. Anger and frustration with these failures are creating a military #MeToo movement. These continuing major failures in the military must be addressed.

The Family Got Involved

Guillén’s family held vigils and protests of their own at Fort Hood in May, including one on May 22. According to KCENTV, “[h]er family said the protest was a way to bring awareness to her disappearance and for them to call for justice and answers.” In a later interview, her sister, Mayra Guillén, reported that her family had conducted at least 10 searches of their own by May 30, including one with over 60 people on May 30 in a park reserve. Since Guillén’s body was found, protests erupted all over Texas, and have spread across the country. 

From the time of Guillen’s disappearance, the family had problems getting information and action from the military. Family attorney Natalie Khawam told The Washington Post in a July 5 article, “Investigators moved too slowly to piece together evidence and secure phone data that led to the suspects more than two months after Guillén disappeared.” 

Murder Case

Investigators now have the murder case pretty well put together.  They believe that Army Specialist Aaron Robinson murdered Guillén and convinced his girlfriend, Cecily Ann Aguilar, to help him dispose of Guillén’s body. The investigators used Robinson’s and Aguilar’s phone records to find her body, which had been dismembered and partially burned. Robinson killed himself on July 1 when confronted by authorities.

At the time of her disappearance, Guillén had been expected to become promoted to a specialist within the month. According to The New York Times, after Guillén’s body was found, Fort Hood officials promoted her from private to specialist, effective July 1. This explains why some articles identify her with the rank of private first class and some with the rank of specialist.

Military Mishandling of Sex Crimes

Vanessa Guillén told her family that she had been sexually harassed by superiors. She didn’t report it, fearing retribution. Reporting sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the military goes up the chain of command – particularly useless if the perpetrator is a superior. This situation also causes other conflicts of interest – unwanted statistics for superiors, who also may lose one or more subordinates if they are involved in the sex crimes.

Online posts of past assaults have only grown since June. At first, the hashtag #NoMas (No More) and #IAmVanessaGuillen, were used mostly by current and past female service members who experienced sexual assault and harassment#IAmVanessaGuillen went viral before June 22, before she was found. Since Guillén’s slaying was confirmed, servicewomen and servicemen continue sharing their stories online, making this like a military #MeToo movement.” According to The Washington Post in a July 7 article, “For some women in uniform, the case is emblematic of a military culture that they say has downplayed or ignored allegations of sexual harassment and assault and created an atmosphere that pressures men and women to keep accusations quiet.” 

The New York Times reports: “Ms. Khawam also called for legislation in Specialist Guillén’s name that would establish better protocols regarding sexual harassment and assault, like allowing members of the military to make reports through a third party rather than having to do so through the chain of command.” 

The Military Must Do Better

The social media uproar, encouraged by activists and celebrities (actor Salma Hayek) as well as other service members, is making a difference. Lawmakers are demanding the Pentagon’s inspector general launch an independent investigation into Guillén’s disappearance and death. Protests and petitions demand investigation and changes in how military handles sex crimes and missing person cases. 

The military needs to take missing person cases more seriously and also communicate better with families. In Guillén’s case, the military didn’t solve her murder until service members blew the story up and shared their stories with the hashtags on social media. While searching for Guillén, the body of another Fort Hood soldier was found. It was a man who had been missing for almost a year and branded a deserter. Would that have been Guillén’s fate also if her family hadn’t pushed so hard – to be branded as a deserter, even though she was taken out mid-duty one afternoon and left keys and more behind? Maybe so.

The protocols to report sexual harassment and assault don’t make sense and don’t work. The military must be forced to address these major deficiencies exposed by the gruesome murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén including slow or negligent investigation of missing persons, lack of communication with families, and handling of sex crimes that is set up to fail.


Some other related or source stories on this, by date:

Some version of this article was run or referred to in the following places.


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