In late June, the remains of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén were found near the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. She had gone missing in April 2020 after confiding in her family that she had faced sexual harassment. A fellow soldier, Specialist Aaron Robinson, is suspected of killing her. He died by suicide after being confronted by the police about the murder. The Army has stated that Spec. Guillén did not file a formal report of harassment. According to her family, she was afraid to file a report for fear of retribution.
Since Spec. Guillén’s death, servicewomen throughout the United States have spoken up in what is being deemed the military’s own #MeToo movement. Using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillén, women are sharing their own stories of harassment and assault while serving our country. In many instances, these servicewomen never spoke up because they feared what would happen. Many of the women who did report being raped or sexually harassed noted that their abusers were promoted — while they were separated from service.
This is not a new problem, or even the first public scandal related to military sexual harassment and assault. In 1992, a Navy lieutenant named Paula Coughlin reported that she was sexually assaulted at the Tailhook Symposium. Marine Corps and Navy officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted up to 83 women and 7 men. None of the approximately 40 officers involved were disciplined for sexual assault. In the wake of this scandal, the Department of Defense announced new policies on women in the armed forces to allow them to serve in combat roles, and worked with consultants to develop protocols and increase accountability for military sexual assault. Nearly 30 years later, not much has changed — as demonstrated by the #IAmVanessaGuillén hashtag.
Both sexual harassment and sexual assault are shockingly common in the military. According to Protect Our Defenders, in 2018 alone, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped. This number includes 13,000 women and 7,500 men. Significantly, women make up approximately 14.4% of all service members — but account for more than 63% of all military sexual assaults. Of the women who were raped, the majority of the assaults were committed by someone with a higher rank (59%) or someone in their chain of command (24%).
Approximately 38% of female and 4% of male service members and veterans have reported that they experienced military sexual trauma. This number includes trauma from both sexual assault and sexual harassment, and is based on individual reports of this type of trauma, as opposed to official incident reports. In 2017 alone, more than 1.35 million outpatient visits took place at Veterans Administration health care centers for military sexual trauma-related care.
24.2% of active duty women and 6.3% of active duty men were sexually harassed in 2018. 20% of the women who were sexually harassed were also sexually assaulted. Most incidents (60%) of sexual harassment were committed by someone in the victim’s chain of command. 85% of victims do not report the crime.
Too often, military sexual assault and harassment is committed by a person in a position of power or authority over the victim. This makes it very difficult for victims to report these crimes, particularly when the process requires them to make the report to the very person who harassed or assaulted them. Retaliation is all-too-common in these situations:
64% of women who reported a sexual assault face retaliation
66% of retaliation was committed by someone in the reporter’s chain of command
More than 1 in 4 victims did not report due to fear of retaliation
More than 1 in 4 victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment left the military as a result of these abuses
44% of sexual harassment victims were encouraged by their chain of command to drop the complaint
Significantly, when victims of military sexual assault make a report, there is a substantial likelihood that they will be the ones who are punished. A Department of Defense report found that one third of victims are discharged after reporting. In most cases, this happens within 7 months of making a report. 24% of victims are separated from service under less than fully honorable conditions. In comparison, 15% of all service members are discharged under these conditions.
With numbers like these, it is little wonder that service members like Spec. Guillén are afraid to report their abuse. Members of our military deserve better. So what can we do to help ensure that those who serve our country are protected?
One thing that we can all do is urge reform on a broad scale. You can do this by contacting your senators and urge them to support the Military Justice Improvement Act. This law would change how decisions on crimes like sexual assault and sexual harassment are made. Instead of a victim’s chain of command making the decision about whether a case should be referred for prosecution, a prosecutor would evaluate the report and make an independent determination.
We can also work to address the root causes of gender-based violence that are prevalent throughout our society — including in the military. Misogyny and victim-blaming are common in the military, leading victims to be blamed, ostracized or retaliated against for their harassment or abuse. In the military, a change in attitude must start from the top. At the same time, when we work individually on social transformation, we can change the attitudes of those who join the military.
Recognizing the problem of military sexual assault and harassment is the first step in addressing it. The Vanessa Guillén case is a particularly horrific example of what can happen when a victim decides to speak out about harassment. It may be what finally spurs our leaders to take action against military sexual violence and retaliation.