What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Murder of Vanessa Guillen puts spotlight on abuse in the U.S. military

In light of the disappearance and murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, new attention is focused on the problem of sexual harassment and abuse in the U.S. military. How does a military chain of command handle such complaints? Retired Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn and former Capt. Melissa Bryant join Nick Schifrin to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The disappearance and murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen has sparked an outpouring of stories from mainly female service members with one common thread.

    Like Guillen, they experienced sexual harassment and abuse in the ranks, but felt that the military's reporting system wasn't built to help them.

    In a moment, Nick Schifrin speaks with two experts about what needs to change.

    But, first, he has some background on Guillen and the stories of women, in their own words, who are part of the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen movement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Vanessa Guillen was 20 years old when she died.

    Her family says she's always wanted to be in the military to protect the country, but they say the military failed to protect her. Guillen told them that she'd been harassed by a higher-ranking soldier, but, because of a culture of fear at the base and in the Army, she felt too afraid to report it.

    She went missing on April 22. Her body was found more than two months later. She'd been struck by a hammer, burned, and partially dismembered. The police zeroed in on the man the family says was her harasser, Aaron Robinson. When they approached him, he died by suicide.

    Outside Fort Hood, there's a memorial for Guillen, and in Houston a march calling for justice and accusing the military of failing to defend its female service members.

    On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper admitted the military could do better.

  • Sec. Mark Esper:

    We have made a lot of progress over 10 years, but nowhere near we need to be.

    We need to get zero tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assault. And we need to make sure everybody in our ranks knows where they can go to for help, where they can find help.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Congress has a major piece of legislation called the Military Justice Improvement Act that would remove the chain of command from the decision to prosecute sexual harassment and abuse claims.

    But this moment is different. The viciousness of the crime, and a social media campaign with the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, has highlighted what countless female veterans say, that Guillen's story, sadly, is not unique.

    We spoke to half-dozen veterans, women victims of sexual harassment or assault, who say they were initially silenced, but, thanks to Guillen, they are silenced no more.

  • Joanna Sweatt:

    My name is Joanna Sweatt, and I am a United States Marine Corps veteran.

  • Tiffany Summa:

    My name is Tiffany Summa. I was and — or I am an Army veteran.

  • Renee Yessman:

    My name is Renee Yessman.

  • Stephanie Flores:

    My name is Stephanie Flores.

  • Ashley Martinez:

    My name is Ashley Martinez.

  • Jorgina Butler:

    My name is Jorgina Butler.

  • Ashley Martinez:

    Two months into my duty assignment, I was raped by another soldier.

  • Jorgina Butler:

    I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew.

  • Renee Yessman:

    In October of 2016, I was at a party off base with some of my friends, and then I just remember waking up on my front yard.

  • Tiffany Summa:

    I was wearing brown sweat pants and a tan Army T-shirt. And the next evening, I woke up, and I was not wearing that. And I had blood on me and I was covered in vomit.

  • Stephanie Flores:

    On my ship, I personally experienced sexual harassment from my direct supervisor, right? And it was a lot of sexist comments, a lot of sexual language and comments towards me.

  • Joanna Sweatt:

    I didn't even know about the assault, the act or anything. That's how blacked out I was.

  • Renee Yessman:

    They made me actually call the male that they found his DNA. It took me an hour to build up the courage to even pick up the phone. I was scared. I was crying.

  • Jorgina Butler:

    They had all the evidence of him saying, yes, I — yes, I do remember that night. Yes, I did do that.

    And they still, for some reason, said there was not enough evidence. I chose, like Vanessa, not to report it. Like a lot of people say, the only difference between me and her story is that I walked away alive.

  • Ashley Martinez:

    With the Vanessa Guillen's story, I think I saw myself in her. I was a young Hispanic enlisted soldier. I was also too scared to tell my mother my attacker's name.

  • Tiffany Summa:

    I went to my chain of command, and I told them what happened and I was immediately told to bury this.

  • Renee Yessman:

    They made me feel like I wasn't a victim, that it was me that initiated it by going to a party. And they kicked me out for having PTSD, and he stayed in.

  • Stephanie Flores:

    The first thing that they told me was like, well, you are new to the military. No one is going to believe you or nothing is going to get done.

  • Ashley Martinez:

    The first questions that I were asked were, were you drinking? How much were you drinking? And what were you wearing?

    I ended up dropping the case, because I didn't feel comfortable prosecuting my attacker, because I didn't have faith in the system.

  • Joanna Sweatt:

    My two friends thought that it was appropriate to go speak to one of our school instructors who happened to be on duty that day. He had a very candid conversation with me about how that would negatively affect my life if I were to report such a crime.

  • Tiffany Summa:

    I would like the "What were you wearing?" to stop. "What did you do?"

    Because, in reality, there's no — there's no way to protect yourself against somebody who has this in their mind to do it.

  • Ashley Martinez:

    I really started to experience debilitating migraines. Eventually, I was medically discharged because I was unable to perform my daily duties. I still live with the trauma every day.

  • Renee Yessman:

    I still go to therapy every week. I'm on a lot of medications to sleep, to have no nightmares, to function normally. I have a service animal.

  • Jorgina Butler:

    I went to the E.R. And that's when I started to just like unreal — reveal a lot of the things that was happening to me, like a suicide attempt with alcohol and pills.

  • Ashley Martinez:

    I know that we all signed up for, and we have to really accept the reality that we may die fighting for this country overseas. But we did not sign up for to be sexually harassed and sexually abused by our own fellow soldiers who we are supposed to fight alongside.

    I would really like to see some more accountability. I don't know how it's possible that Vanessa was missing for over a month in an institution where supervisors are supposed to have accountability of their soldiers at all times of day.

  • Jorgina Butler:

    You can't investigate yourself. And that's what Fort Hood does. They sent the cases back down to the unit to investigate themselves.

  • Tiffany Summa:

    What a lot of the survivors and I have discussed is wanting a separate civilian entity that only deals with military sexual trauma.

    I shared under the hashtag, and hundreds of people have been in my inbox through Facebook and Twitter wanting to share their stories with me. And for a lot of them, it's the first time they have ever shared their story.

  • Jorgina Butler:

    You can't demote me. You can't kick me out of anything anymore. So, me using my voice might protect somebody else.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest