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‘The military’s #MeToo’: Vanessa Guillén’s slaying has many servicewomen revisiting their own deep scars

Army investigators have positively identified the remains of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, according to her family. (Video: The Washington Post)

A grim but predictable story has played out for many servicewomen and female veterans, as a desperate search for Army Spec. Vanessa Guillén ended with confirmation of her death.

Before she went missing in April, Guillén confided in her family that she had been sexually harassed but feared surfacing the incidents to her leaders, her sisters and mother have said. On Sunday, the family announced that remains discovered days earlier in a shallow grave in Texas near Fort Hood belonged to the 20-year-old, who authorities say was killed by a fellow soldier.

“It’s shocking and heartbreaking,” Martina Chesonis, an officer in the Air Force Reserve, said of Guillén’s death. “And not surprising.”

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.

“You know if it’s not you, it’s one of your peers who has experienced it,” Chesonis said. “Her murder is rare, but the experiences of sexual harassment and being afraid of reprisal — that’s not unique.”

Fort Hood did not return a request for comment on the command climate at her unit, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, but officials there say they take sexual harassment allegations seriously.

In interviews, several service members listed other assault and harassment incidents that have drawn public attention — including the murder of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, and the Tailhook, Aberdeen and Marines United scandals. But they said the Guillén case has galvanized calls for congressional involvement and accountability faster than any other in recent history.

The moment, women have said, has been accelerated in the larger reckoning over identity and values in the United States.

“This is a version of the military’s #MeToo,” said Chesonis, the director of communications for the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group. “Women feel empowered in shared experiences, and the hashtag is doing the same thing.”

The movement, which includes activists and celebrities as well as other service members, has helped spur calls for action. Nearly 90 lawmakers on Monday signed a letter from Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Tex.) demanding the Pentagon’s inspector general launch an independent investigation into Guillén’s disappearance and death.

More than 2,500 servicewomen and veterans have signed a letter demanding a similar investigation and the relief of Guillén’s chain of command.

The push for greater scrutiny has been buttressed by the #IAmVanessaGuillen hashtag on social media, where servicewomen and veterans have expressed sorrow and frustration by detailing their own harrowing moments of rape and harassment, unified by themes of indifference or hostility within their chain of command and frustrations with an entrenched culture.

Kayla Whitacre, a Marine Corps veteran, recounted a moment when she was a young private first class and a male colleague approached her barracks room and attempted to enter.

“I hurried behind my door, dug my feet in and pushed as hard as I could,” she wrote on Facebook. “We struggled like that for what felt like forever. I finally shoved it closed. He stood outside my window and stared at me until I closed the curtain.”

The death of Guillén, a first-generation American with Mexican roots, has doubly scarred Latino veterans, said Pam Campos-Palma, who served as an Air Force intelligence analyst.

“There is a deep burden” among minority women in the military, she said, “and a pain of loving your country and serving in uniform for a military which doesn’t love you back.”

There were 6,236 sexual assaults recorded in the military last year, a 3 percent rise from 2018 figures, the Defense Department said in an April report. Officials pointed to optimistic signs from surveys that the culture has begun to reject casual sexual harassment but acknowledged it was occurring slowly.

Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps officer, detailed personal moments of sexual harassment in the service and her later fight against it in her memoir “Unbecoming.”

After the assault and harassment, she said, comes the “silence of peers and platoon sergeants, all the way to generals.”

“You talk to these families and there is this idea of giving daughters to the larger good,” Bhagwati said. “This is so far from the end of the other end of the spectrum,” she said of Guillén’s killing.

Rates of violent crimes are lower among service members than they are for civilians, analysts have said, owing to more severe punishment for offenders, lack of pre-service criminal records and other circumstances.

But researchers in the 1990s found “military rape rates are not reduced nearly as much as military rates of ‘other’ violent crime, relative to civilian rates.”

That dynamic continues to play out. A 2019 Pentagon review of sexual assault at military service academies found the crime’s prevalence “is comparable to rates observed in civilian colleges.”

The data is unsurprising and surprising, Chesonis said, because cadets are heavily scrutinized upon enrollment, pointing to systemic issues learned in civil culture before they set foot inside the academies. Those leaders then go on to become leaders, from platoons to divisions.

“Sexual assault and harassment are horrendous crimes, period,” she said. “But when they are brought into military culture where we rely on each other for life and death, it’s especially damaging.”

Katie Cook, an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, detailed her experience as a Naval Academy midshipman. She was a witness in a rape allegation, she wrote on Twitter, and male students belittled the victim and Cook was pressured to retract her statements, she wrote.

Cook had more positive experiences later in the service, she said in an interview, including commanders who took allegations seriously and fostered a climate in which survivors could seek help or justice.

“As a leader I’m so distraught she didn’t have advocacy and protection and a chain of command that she trusted,” Cook said of Guillén.

“I know sailors and Marines who are her,” she said. “You see someone the U.S. military let down.”

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