How one Army soldier reignited a movement against military sexual assault
For many of us in the U.S. military, we have insider jokes and quips about each service, different jobs, and even various installations.
In April 2020, however, the running headlines about one missing soldier helped unite communities and reignite a movement against sexual violence in the military.
Vanessa Guillén was a private first class (posthumously promoted to specialist) at Fort Hood when she went missing on April 22, 2020. As a Houston, Texas, native, her disappearance made local headlines around the Army base, but social media arguably propelled her story into national spotlight.
In a timeline of events by ABC News, the official investigations began by April 28, but there was no news on her disappearance for weeks. By June 3, her family created social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. In moving the conversation online, they were seeking to hold the installation accountable and demand justice for Vanessa. It would evolve into something much greater.
Vanessa’s remains were found on June 30 and positively identified on July 5. The brutal and twisted details of her death can be found here. But one critical fact remained: Vanessa had confided in her family about sexual harassment from a superior, but was afraid to report it.
During the initial timeline of the movement, the hashtag #FindVanessaGuillen came first. I recall many friends and fellow service members in my timeline sharing the missing person poster. The following was growing. Then slowly but surely, women online were fed up with inaction from the Army and the perceived lack of justice for Vanessa.
Then came the next wave: #IamVanessaGuillen and #WeAreVanessaGuillen.
In her sister Lupe’s words, the hashtags became “a sounding board for other military members who say they’ve been victims of sex-related crimes while on duty.”
As the case picked up attention in the social media sphere, other female service members felt empowered to share their stories. Women were adding “Justice for Vanessa” frames to their Facebook profile pictures. Facebook groups for female veterans were rampant with discussion on Vanessa and the reality of her death…that it “could have been any of us.” Individuals were finding each other online to help organize protests across the country.
In a matter of weeks, Vanessa became the military’s “Me Too” moment, where women could use their voice and share their experiences as survivors of sexual violence and trauma in the military.
ABC’s 20/20 premiered a documentary on her death and the movement it inspired on Sept. 11, 2020.
Video: 'I Am Vanessa' - a 20/20 special preview
The disappearance and murder of army specialist Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood in Texas earlier this spring. Put a…
Finally, by mid September, we saw the true marker of this power movement — the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act.
The bipartisan bill was introduced by more than 100 House members in September 2020. As cited from the press release:
“This bill is in honor of the late SPC Vanessa Guillén and the many survivors of military sexual violence who have bravely come forward in the wake of her disappearance and brutal murder. The legislation responds to these resounding calls for change by offering provisions that would revolutionize the military’s response to missing servicemembers and reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault by making sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice and moving prosecution decisions of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases out of the chain of command.”
While this bill is certainly not the legacy any mother would every imagine for their child. It definitely provides hope for the future of other female service members and adds a bookmark to Vanessa’s life and the lasting impact of her death.
Until Valhalla, Vanessa. Thank you for your service.