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#IAmVanessaGuillen documentary explores the culture of toxicity at Fort Hood

A makeshift memorial sits beneath a mural of late Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in Fort Worth, Texas in July 2020.
LM Otero
/
AP
A makeshift memorial sits beneath a mural of late Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in Fort Worth, Texas in July 2020.

Updated July 12, 2022 at 12:23 PM ET

The 2020 murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén and the national outcry that followed helped shed a light on the widespread problem of sexual misconduct in the military.

The 20-year-old was murdered by another soldier while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, after experiencing sexual harassment. Her family has said she did not report those incidents for fear of retaliation, though a U.S. Army investigation later found that she reported being sexually harassed twice. (The vast majority of such cases go unreported, many for this same reason.)

Guillén's family has been pushing for systemic change ever since. One major milestone came in January, when President Biden signed an executive order making sexual harassment a specific crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Guillén's killing also prompted officials to take a closer look at the culture of the base, which had seen a string of other deaths and disappearances. An Army review conducted after Guillén's death found profound issues at Fort Hood, including a command climate "permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault," and disciplined more than a dozen leaders as a result.

Women at Fort Hood have a higher risk of being sexually assaulted than the average woman in the Army, according to a RAND Corporation analysis. But the problem runs deeper than that particular base: Roughly 1 in 4 women in the military have experienced sexual harassment, and 1 in 16 have experienced sexual assault.

And many saw themselves in Guillén. One of those women is Karina López, a survivor of sexual assault who was also stationed at Fort Hood. She left the base a month before Guillén disappeared in April 2020, and can't help but wonder whether she would have faced a similar fate had she stayed.

López says she was subjected to retaliation after reporting being sexually assaulted in her room by another soldier, and that commanders ignored her complaints. She filed a whistleblower complaint with the Pentagon and applied for honorable discharge in 2019.

Moved by Guillén's death, López started speaking up on social media using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillén and prompted scores of others to do the same.

She's now one of the subjects of a new Univision Noticias documentary by the same name, focusing on the culture of sexual misconduct at Fort Hood specifically. Versions of the film in both English and Spanish will launch online here on Thursday morning.

Morning Edition host A Martínez spoke with director Andrea Patiño Contreras about the problems highlighted by the film, the reforms that Guillén's death made possible and the work that remains.

This conversation has details that may be upsetting to some readers; it has been condensed for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On the impact of military sexual trauma

López told Patiño that despite all that she had endured, what really triggered her PTSD was the fact that leadership and people around her didn't support or believe her.

"Unfortunately this is very very common," the director says. "And some of the research that has been done says that experiencing military sexual trauma is a higher predictor of PTSD than going to combat."

On the role of individuals vs. institutions

López was almost driven to harm herself because she felt she had no allies or options.

Her concerned mother contacted her mentor, now-retired Command Sgt. Major Sheldon Moore, who connected López with resources and tried to get her help. He says he was representing the Army, suggesting it should get credit for taking action by extension.

"In our reporting we found individuals who clearly are good leaders, they care for their soldiers, they truly understand the implications that this has, but when you zoom out there's clearly an institutional problem," Patiño says. "I don't think a lot of those leaders said that or acknowledged that."

The poster for #IAmVanessaGuillén, a new documentary launching online July 14.
/ Diego Patiño
/
Diego Patiño
The poster for #IAmVanessaGuillén, a new documentary launching online July 14.

On the military's efforts to address sexual misconduct

The documentary details some of the programs that the military has established to help enlisted survivors, including the SHARP program (which stands for Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention).

Patiño says that before SHARP was created in 2008, there wasn't really a clear system for reporting incidents. Its training also cover what to do if someone witnesses sexual harassment, and how people can protect themselves.

Critics say some of the advice it offers — like avoiding going out alone and making sure to keep drinks covered — puts the responsibility on the victim rather than would-be perpetrators.

"While it's certainly important and needs to be there, it doesn't answer the question of accountability," Patiño says. "And it doesn't answer the question of, well, you have this system in which people can get away with this crime."

On what other changes are needed

That's not the only factor, she adds, pointing to things like misogyny and the fact that the military handles sexual misconduct cases differently than the civilian world.

Those conditions will take a long time to change, she says, though some important steps have been taken in recent years.

Notably, the National Defense Authorization Act that Biden signed in December draws several measures from the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, including taking cases of sexual assault outside the survivor's immediate chain of command so that their superiors are not making the decision about whether to prosecute.

Patiño says those changes don't apply to sexual harassment, calling it a big contradiction because the two are closely linked. Indeed, research shows that sexual harassment against servicemen and women is strongly associated with the risk of sexual assault.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE for 24/7 confidential help.

The audio for this interview was produced by Lilly Quiroz and edited by Mohamad ElBardicy.

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

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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