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Vanessa Guillén's murder led the U.S. to deem military sexual harassment a crime

Mayra Guillén, second from left, and Lupe Guillén, second from right, have been vocal advocates for changes to military justice, after their sister Vanessa was murdered at 20 years old. The Guillén family says Vanessa endured sexual harassment — which is now a crime in the military.
Susan Walsh
Mayra Guillén, second from left, and Lupe Guillén, second from right, have been vocal advocates for changes to military justice, after their sister Vanessa was murdered at 20 years old. The Guillén family says Vanessa endured sexual harassment — which is now a crime in the military.

Sexual harassment is now a crime under U.S. military law — a milestone that might surprise many people simply because it hadn't occurred until now. The change is a direct legacy of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was murdered by a fellow soldier in 2020 while she was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

"My little sister shed light on the epidemic of sexual misconduct in the military" Mayra Guillén said in a tweet. "You'll never be forgotten. I miss you so much. Hope you're proud!"

Guillén's name was repeatedly invoked by the White House as President Biden signed an executive order that establishes sexual harassment as a specific crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The White House said Guillén's "experience with severe sexual harassment was followed by her brutal murder, drawing national attention to the scourge of sexual violence in the military."

Biden's action fulfills a section of the National Defense Authorization Act, which calls for the president to establish sexual harassment as a punishable offense under the military code. The law required that step within 30 days of it being enacted; Biden signed the NDAA on Dec. 27.

Vanessa Guillén's family fought for change

Guillén's family said she was sexually harassed before her death, but fear of retaliation kept her from reporting it. Since then, her sisters and the family's attorney have pushed for changes. With Biden's new executive order delivering a core element of those reforms, Mayra Guillén said, "this feels unreal."

The National Defense Authorization Act includes several measures that reform how the military treats sexual harassment or assault. Most of those measures were drawn from or inspired by the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act:

  • When military personnel are missing or absent without leave, their commanders must immediately share information with local and federal agencies;
  • Sexual harassment complaints must be handled through independent investigations;
  • The Secretary of Defense must assess on-base living quarters and take measures "to prevent crime, including sexual assault," such as ensuring sleeping areas' have locking doors and windows;
  • The Department of Defense will track "allegations of retaliation by victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment."
  • Months after Guillén's family spoke out, the Army largely agreed with them

    Guillén's family said she was sexually harassed before her death — but didn't report it.

    "My sister was too afraid to report the harassment because no one would listen to her," Lupe Guillén told NPR in July 2020. "They take sexual harassment, sexual assault, as a joke. They don't care."

    Months after that damning statement, then-Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy essentially agreed with Guillén's sister, saying the command climate at Fort Hood was "permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault."

    The Army punished 14 leaders at Fort Hood, relieving some high-ranking officers of duty and suspending other leaders after a review that was sparked by Guillén's death.

    Biden's executive order takes effect immediately. Because the new policy is not retroactive, it won't apply to any actions that might have taken place before the president signed the order.

    "All men and women in uniform should be able to serve their country free from fear of violence or harassment," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said via Twitter. He was in the Oval Office when Biden signed the order.

    Along with making sexual harassment a crime, "it also strengthens the military justice response in prosecuting cases of domestic violence, and fully implements changes to the military justice code to criminalize the wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate visual images," the White House said.

    A review panel says the changes will strengthen the U.S. military

    The new changes to the military code are among the dozens of recommendations made by a special panel, the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military.

    "This is an important step," said Kyleanne Hunter, a commission member and Marine Corps veteran who teaches at the U.S. Air Force Academy and Georgetown University.

    Hunter says the changes are key to ensuring a robust military.

    "That starts with ensuring that the women and men who sign up to serve are safe and protected," she said. "Addressing sexual harassment — which impacts 1 in 3 women and 1 in 16 men in the Services — is an essential part of doing this. This order will keep us safer."

    The commission's members also included Army veteran Kris Fuhr, who graduated from West Point in 1985, in just the fifth class that included women.

    A sense of how far the military has come, and how far it has to go, can be gleaned from a 2017 interview, in which Fuhr recounted the harsh treatment she and other female cadets faced in the military academy. For her, the mistreatment including an instance where a senior cadet attacked her, after sending her roommate away from their room.

    The man had shoved Fuhr down to the floor and had pinned her down, Fuhr said, when her squad leader grabbed him and pulled him off of her.

    "What was amazing to me," Fuhr said in that interview, was that despite the older cadet being moved to another unit after the attack, "they commissioned him in the United States Army."

    Some 20 years later, Fuhr said, she ran into Sue Tendy, a former West Point coach who had spoken up for her, and tried to hold the other cadet accountable. Fuhr said hello — but Tendy immediately talked about that attack in 1982.

    "She still felt so bad about it, she was like, 'I tried so hard to help you,' " Fuhr said.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.