For Army veteran Jorgina Butler, the details of Vanessa Guillen’s disappearance and murder were hauntingly familiar, because many of them happened to her too.
Like Guillen, Butler was stationed at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas from 2009 to 2013. Like Guillen, Butler was subject to sexual mistreatment at the hands of her fellow soldiers. And like Guillen, she declined to file a formal report, for fear of retaliation.
“A lot of people say the only difference between me and her story is that I walked away alive,” Butler said.
Butler was one of the hundreds of mostly female veterans to speak out on social media, using the hashtag #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN, to share their stories — many for the first time — after Guillen’s remains were found more than two months after she went missing.
The details of Guillen’s murder are gruesome, but it wasn’t just the horrifying nature of her case that spurred a movement — it was about how universal it felt.
“I saw myself in her,” said Army veteran Ashley Martinez, who was raped by a fellow soldier in 2015, two months into an overseas deployment. “I was also too scared to tell my mother my attacker’s name. Many fellow soldiers I served with also have stories like mine. And that could have been any of us.”
According to the Guillen family’s lawyer, Natalie Kharam, Guillen had told friends, family members and fellow soldiers about sexual harassment she was experiencing on the base, but didn’t want to tell them the name of the perpetrator because she feared getting in trouble, let alone filing an official complaint, which then makes its way up the military chain of command.
“She thought that they would just make a problem for her and she just wanted to continue serving. And she was afraid that they wouldn’t believe her, that they would question her. That they would attack her character,” Kharam said.
An FBI complaint filed last week names Specialist Aaron Robinson as her killer, and states that he admitted as much to his girlfriend. Robinson died by suicide as police approached him. Kharam said that just before her disappearance, Guillen confronted Robinson herself, threatening to report him. Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, admitted to helping him dispose of Guillen’s body.
Each service branch has slightly different procedures in place for sexual assault and harassment cases. But six female veterans from the Army, Navy and Marines told the PBS NewsHour they felt their respective branch’s systems failed them.
Army veteran Tiffany Summa was assaulted in 2009, shortly after returning home from a deployment in Iraq. A friend and fellow soldier had called her, saying he was having trouble dealing with memories from Iraq. She invited him over and she woke up the following evening, covered in blood and vomit. Summa got a rape kit, the results of which took six years to receive, and waited several days to summon up the courage to report the assault to her chain of command.
“I was immediately told to bury this,” she said. “It was a very high-ranking person who told me to bury it. And finished that up with, ‘or I’ll bury you.’”
Summa was assigned to work with a civilian representing the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program. But that only made it worse, she said. She told the SHARP representative, a woman, that she had a glass of wine before the assault.
“You had a glass of wine that night. So you roofied yourself. You invited him to your apartment. What did you expect?” she said, recounting what the SHARP representative said during the conversation.
Summa said that while her experience took place 11 years ago, she has spoken to many more recently attacked soldiers who said they had had similar experiences with the SHARP program.
Army veteran Armando Perez tweeted that his SHARP supervisor was his assailant.
Perez’s assault took place in 2016 and he said the harassment continued for years.
Guillen’s story has particularly resonated within the Latino military community, which is the fastest-growing population in the military, according to the Defense Department. Guillen is just one of several Latino service members in recent years to go missing and be found deceased. Fort Bragg soldier Enrique Roman-Martinez, 21, was reported missing on May 23, and his remains were found six days later. Private Adrienne Barillas, 22, was found unresponsive on the base in South Korea where she was stationed in September 2018.
And during the search for Guillen’s remains, investigators also found those of Fort Hood soldier Gregory Wedel Morales, who disappeared last year and was labeled a deserter by the military.
“It doesn’t make sense that a young man who was just days away from getting an honorable discharge and his military benefits would all of a sudden just disappear without a trace. Yet, that’s exactly what the Army used as the excuse to do nothing for months, the same as they did in Vanessa’s case,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. [Morales’] brother said military investigators didn’t care.”
Speaking in congressional testimony Thursday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper acknowledged that the military has not done enough to help prevent sexual harassment and assault, or to help victims and survivors after the fact.
“We’ve made a lot of progress over 10 years, but nowhere where we need to be. We need to get zero tolerance of sexual harassment, and sexual assault, and we need to make sure everyone in our ranks knows where they can get help, where they can find help,” he said.
But retired Marine Joanna Sweatt, who was assaulted and harassed repeatedly during her 10 years of service, said that the change needs to happen in the roots of the military, at a cultural level. She said she still struggles with looking back fondly on her service, even though she is proud of it.
“A lot of that ugly are things that should have never been there and are due to systematic processes that protect this misogynist, patriarchal society that we live in. And that it’s my fault if something happens to me because I want to play with the boys and that’s not what it’s about,” she said.