Family of slain Army soldier Vanessa Guillen files $35 million suit against U.S.

Mayra Guillen, the eldest sister of U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen who investigators believe was bludgeoned to death by a fellow soldier at Fort Hood in 2020, was lobbying for military reform at the nation's capital last week when she came across a news article that would again change the course of her family's fight for justice.

The 24-year-old, in an interview with the American-Statesman this week, explained the article was about a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which stated that sexual assault was not included under the Feres doctrine, a 1950s Supreme Court ruling that prevents military members from filing lawsuits for most injuries obtained while serving.

The Defense Department for decades has used the Feres doctrine to stop military members from suing for sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, according to Don Christensen, president of the nonprofit Protect Our Defenders, which is dedicated to ending sexual violence, victim retaliation, misogyny, sexual prejudice and racism in the military.

In the ruling last week, the judges said that case's"alleged sexual assault (could) not conceivably serve any military purpose,” which opened the door for the Guillen family to seek damages in their soldier's case. The Army has confirmed that Guillen was sexually harassed before her death, but the family is planningto prove she was also sexually assaulted.

"It's hugely significant, in that the language was very strong on why sexual assault would not be incident to service," Christensen said when asked about the ruling. "At least in the 9th Circuit, it removed that very large initial roadblock to being able to recover damages."

On Friday, the Guillen family rushed to file a lawsuit seeking $35 million in damages from the U.S. government as remedy for their soldier's suffering.

"It was a huge surprise," said Mayra about the ruling, who since her sister's death has dedicated her time to military advocacy. "I teared up after I realized we had a chance to fight back. It is very exciting, but still very sad."

What happened to Spc. Vanessa Guillen?

It was more than two years ago that Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was born and raised in Houston as a first-generation immigrant, served at Fort Hood, one of the largest military training grounds. 

At the time, Fort Hood was proudly enveloped in its decadeslong reputation of preparing troops for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army had nicknamed the Central Texas post "The Great Place" for the quality of life it offered to those stationed there.

But Guillen's slaying led to revelations at Fort Hood that exposed a hidden cultureof violence and misconduct among soldiers, particularly sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Mayra Guillen was the first to report her sister missing after her text messages went unanswered the day she was killed.

Gloria Guillen, mother of slain Spc. Vanessa Guillen, poses for a portrait with her oldest daughter Mayra Guillen.
Gloria Guillen, mother of slain Spc. Vanessa Guillen, poses for a portrait with her oldest daughter Mayra Guillen.

With little to no information about Vanessa Guillen's whereabouts from the Army, Mayra Guillen and her family protestedoutside Fort Hood over the next several weeks as they called for congressional intervention into what they believed was a complete failure by the post's leadership to find the soldier.

During one of the protests, before Guillen's remains were discovered near the Leon River outside of Killeen later that summer, the soldier's mother revealed that her daughter had confided in her that multiple soldiers had been sexually harassing her on post.

The Guillen family's protests triggered a viral social media hashtag, #IAmVanessaGuillen, that hundreds of service members used online to share their own experiences with sexual assault in the military.

Many of the stories were similar, often saying the military did little or nothing to investigate, charge and prosecute their offenders. In many of the social media posts, soldiers said they never reported their experiences because of fear of retaliation.

U.S. Army officials in the months after Guillen's killing had maintained that no evidence substantiated any allegations of sexual harassment on the post.

The #IAmVanessaGuillen movement is what finally caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington. Elements of a proposed I Am Vanessa Guillen Act eventually were included in the National Defense Authorization Act after failing to pass as a stand-alone bill. 

It wasn't until more than a year after Guillen's death that the Army publicly confirmed that the 20-year-old was sexually harassed and further retaliated against at Fort Hood by a superior.

Spc. Aaron Robinson, the man investigators believe killed Guillen, fatally shot himself as authorities tried to detain him a day after Guillen's remains were found. Robinson's girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, who is accused of helping him dispose of the soldier's remains, is set to stand trial in January.

Attorney: Family working to prove soldier was sexually assaulted

For months, Guillen's case revolved around her family pushing the Army to admit she was sexually harassed, but now with the lawsuit they are also planning to prove she was sexually assaulted and exposefurther sexual misconduct.

This is because the 9th U.S. Circuit Court last week in its statements only addressed sexual assault in regards to the Feres doctrine and did not specifically mention sexual harassment, according to Guillen family attorney Natalie Khawam.

Khawam — who is a founding partner of For the Military law firm that solely focuses on military issues, in addition to her main practice called Whistleblower Law Firm — said she feels she and the Guillen family have all the evidence needed to prove the soldier was sexually assaulted.

"That case was only about sexual assault," Khawam said about the appeal court's ruling last week. "We have sexual assault in our case.If the court wants to expand interpretation to include victims of sexual harassment and murder, we'd be more than happy to also include those in our lawsuit. I would be shocked if somebody would say, 'Oh, no. You expect to be sexually assaulted and murdered while you're working.'"

In the lawsuit, Mayra Guillen hints toward her sister's alleged assault while detailing how Vanessa Guillen called her in early 2020 to say she was suicidal. That call came after Vanessa Guillen confided in her mother about the first time that she was being sexually harassed on the post, according to the lawsuit.

The eldest sister immediately drove to Fort Hood to help Vanessa Guillen after learning she had been admitted to a post hospital for treatment.

"Vanessa called me crying stating that she wanted to commit suicide," Mayra Guillen said in the lawsuit. "Vanessa couldn't handle the sexual harassment or sexual assault that I wasn't aware of until April of 2020. No matter how many times I asked about what was hurting her, she would just say 'work.'"

While the Army has maintained there is no evidence proving that Vanessa Guillen was sexually assaulted, a report released earlier this year included statements from Aguilar who told investigators that she knew Robinson had assaulted Guillen after her death.

The Defense Department declined to comment as this matter is in litigation.

"Unfortunately, she is not here to speak for herself," Khawam said, adding that she and her team will rely on witnesses and family member's statements to prove that Guillen was sexual assaulted during her service. "Given the circumstances, given the evidence, given the reports, given the statements, given what Vanessa spoke to her mom and her sisters about, given what she spoke to her fellow soldiers about and given the findings of the DOD and the repercussions of her being depressed and suicidal, we are confident that she was sexually assaulted."

Christensen said while the ruling last week opens the door for other military service members to sue the U.S. government for incidents involving sexual assault, it will likely be difficult to find attorneys like Khawam to accept their cases.

"Taking on a federal lawsuit is not something you do lightly," he said. "I would anticipate there are survivors out there who are interested in doing this, and the question is, will they find someone willing to take it on."

Christensen explained that attorneys might be reticent to accept these cases because even though theappealscourt foundsexual assault wasn't covered by the Feres doctrine, other courts might see things differently. And, unless there is a Supreme Court ruling on the matter that clearly states sexual assault and sexual harassment are not incidents to service, those cases might be difficult to win.

"I would be surprised if the Supreme Court would rule that getting raped is incident to service," Christensen said. "That in 2022 would be particularly offensive I think, but they still could."

Khawam echoed Christensen's statements, saying that nobody expects to be sexually assaulted when joining the military, and therefore should not be "included as an expected part of their job description, or incident to service as a military member. That's why the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals got it right."

She believes the Feres doctrine never stated that sexual assault was incident to service, but suspects the Department of Defense for decades has misapplied the law to "evade accountability."

The Defense Department now has six months to respond to the Guillen family's lawsuit, with the option to either deny, settle or grant the requested amount, according to Khawam. If the Guillen family does not agree with the department's decision, they then have the right to go to federal court for a trial.

"A trial would be an opportunity for the Guillen family to finally be heard and have their day in court" Khawam said.

Although nothing will bring her sister back, Mayra Guillen said the lawsuit will hopefully hold the U.S. government accountable and protect future soldiers from the same suffering.

"Vanessa uncovered all of the wrongdoings of the military that has been hidden long, long before her death," Mayra Guillen said. "It's a huge step for my family, for myself, for Natalie to be able to prove that the Feres doctrine does not comply with covering up my sister's sexual assault, sexual misconduct and murder."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Family of slain Army soldier Vanessa Guillen files $35 million suit