Will Vanessa Guillén's Murder Finally Reform Sexual Assault Reporting In the Military?

Rose Minutaglio
·7 mins read
Photo credit: Sergio Flores - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sergio Flores - Getty Images

From ELLE

When Teresa Beasley first heard about Vanessa Guillén, the 20-year-old Army specialist who was allegedly sexually harassed by a superior and then went missing from Fort Hood, she was heartbroken.

But not surprised.

During her ten years as a military counselor, Beasley met hundreds of young women who told her they were sexually harassed or assaulted by fellow military members. Many, like Guillén, never officially reported their abusers out of fear of retaliation, instead confiding in family members or peers.

"Victims of sexual assault in the military will tell you that retaliation can be just as bad as the assault itself," Beasley, who worked with cadets at the Air Force Academy, tells ELLE.com. "It's a deterrent for speaking out. I've seen cadets become ostracized or stalked by their perpetrators for coming forward, followed around and called sluts or liars. You get to feel subhuman, it's crippling."

After Guillén's body was discovered near a river in July, dismembered and badly burned, military women coalesced on Twitter using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen to call for reform in sexual assault reporting. Their demands were met last week with a new bill finally offering hope for a safer way to hold sexual abusers and harassers accountable in the military.

Photo credit: Courtesy Teresa Beasley
Photo credit: Courtesy Teresa Beasley

Beasley knows about retaliation in the military. In 2005, she was tapped to take over the Air Force Academy's sexual assault program, where her duties included coordinating prevention education for more than 4,000 cadets, processing new assault and harassment reports, and meeting with survivors. Pentagon leaders like Deputy Director for the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Dr. Nate Galbreath, praised her for working "overtime in getting in front of the cadets," but behind the scenes, Beasley says she was loathed by many of her peers.

"They didn't like me, didn't like the program, because we were a blight on the Academy's reputation," she says. "Behind our backs, we were called bra-burning, man-hating feminazis by leadership, cadets, and other staff."

During the 2014-2015 school year, one of Beasley's supervisors "freaked out," as she tells it. There was a particularly high number of reports that year — much higher than at West Point or the Naval Academy — and she began to notice cases had been removed from their tracking system. An Emmy award-winning segment from CBS would later confirmed via internal Air Force memos that 16 sexual harassment or assault reports had, in fact, been deleted from the tracking system and had not been disclosed to Congress as required by law.”

"What nobody understood was that the number of assaults wasn't going up, just the number of reports. And that was because cadets were increasingly trusting us to come forward with their stories," Beasley explains. "It was seen as a embarrassment, like, 'Oh my God, you've got big sexual assault problems here.' But it was actually a good thing, and changing the numbers wasn't going to make the problem go away."

Beasley says she was demoted after questioning the missing reports, and a certification allowing her to act as a victim advocate was pulled by Academy leadership. She put in for retirement in 2016, and has since filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against the Academy with support from Protect our Defenders, a not-for-profit dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military, and TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which provides financial and legal support for victims of sexual assault and retaliation in the workplace. Beasley filed an EEOC complaint against the Air Force Academy alleging that she was subject to a hostile and discriminatory work environment after speaking out against the Academy. On summary judgment, an EEOC administrative judge found in favor of the Air Force Academy and against Beasley. In papers obtained by ELLE.com, Beasley has appealed the EEOC administrative judge’s summary judgment ruling.

"There's a long, terrible history of sexual harassment in the military, and it's well past time for that to change," TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund Director Sharyn Tejani tells ELLE.com. "It's our priority to support survivors of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation, like Teresa, who refuse to be silenced and choose to come forward with their stories to stand up to powerful institutions."

The Academy's 560-page investigation into the office Beasley led reportedly found her program "jeopardized" victim care. But a Department of Defense Inspector General report from 2019 didn't support those findings. Obtained by ELLE.com, the DoD report concluded that, "victim support services were available to cadet-victims at the United States Air Force Academy as required by Department of Defense and Air Force policy."

Though Beasley worked mostly with cadets at the Air Force, she says retaliation is a systemic problem at all academies and branches of the military. At Fort Hood, the central Texas post where Guillén was stationed, Congress is currently investigating whether the deaths of 29 other soldiers this year — at least nine of them under unusual or suspicious circumstances, according to NPR — were "symptomatic of underlying leadership, discipline, and morale deficiencies throughout the chain-of-command."

The Army is also looking into Fort Hood's handling of sexual harassment allegations made by Guillén's mother and sister after her death. In a press conference, her family said that before she disappeared on April 22, she told fellow soldiers about an incident involving a superior. Guillén's older sister, Mayra, said her sister was worried that coming forward might jeopardize her military career, according to Army Times.

The fact that Guillén didn't file an official complaint doesn't surprise Beasley. "If you speak out or report something they don't want to hear, be prepared for your soul to be crushed," she says. "They don't just stop at admonishing you, they go after you to destroy you."

Guillén's suspected killer, fellow soldier Specialist Aaron Robinson, died by suicide while being approached by police in June. Authorities have since charged Robinson's girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence for allegedly helping "mutilate and dispose of... Vanessa Guillén," according to this statement from the Department Of Justice. Court documents show Aguilar pleaded "not guilty" to charges, and her trial is scheduled to begin in late November. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Photo credit: MARK FELIX - Getty Images
Photo credit: MARK FELIX - Getty Images

In the months since Guillén's death, a new law in her honor could transform how the military handles sexual assault and harassment allegations. The "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act" is a bipartisan bill aimed at creating a more confidential reporting system. The measure would also make sexual harassment within the military a punishable crime and permit sexual harassment or assault survivors to file claims within the DoD for compensation.

“The status quo is unacceptable. We’re not going to tolerate it anymore,” Rep. Jackie Speier, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a news conference last week. Speier and Rep. Markwayne Mullin introduced the bill, alongside the Guillén family and their attorney, Natalie Khawam.

Nancy Pelosi, who also met with Guillén's family, said in a statement that there's still "many service members facing an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our armed forces, too often in the shadows."

Photo credit: Tom Williams - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tom Williams - Getty Images

There's no simple solution, no one fix for what Beasley describes as a "sexual assault epidemic" in the military. But the "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act" is a good start.

"We think we've come so far, but we really haven't, those in leadership still do everything in their power to shut victims up," Beasley says. "We need to start believing victims and we need to start supporting them instead of perpetuating the myth that victims are lying. By not believing them, we punish them. And people are suffering because of it, people are dying."

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