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Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén's death puts spotlight on military's handling of sexual assault and harassment

Complaint alleges Vanessa Guillén murdered
New complaint alleges Vanessa Guillén murdered on base 03:20

After slain U.S. soldier Vanessa Guillén disappeared in April, service members and veterans have stepped forward on social media to share their experiences with sexual assault or harassment while serving. Over the last two weeks, Guillén's name was mentioned in more than 2.5 million tweets and the #IAMVanessaGuillen hashtag has been used 170,000 times, according to Twitter.

Guillén's family has said she was the victim of harassment on at least two separate occasions by superiors. In one incident, they claim, a superior walked in on Guillén as she was taking a shower. Fort Hood officials said there was no evidence to support the claim and denied any connection between her disappearance and their accusations.

The community has used the #IAMVanessaGuillen hashtag to share their own stories. Panayiota Bertzikis, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and founder of the Military Rape Crisis Center, tweeted about her alleged rape. 

"In 2006 I was brutally raped by a member of the United States Coast Guard. I was locked up in a closet for reporting the rape," she wrote. "I was blamed, shamed, and eventually lost my career."  

Frederique White wrote that a fellow member walked into her room while she was asleep while stationed in South Korea. In another instance, she said, she was assaulted.

"I was sexually assaulted and too afraid to speak up because of what us women go through when it's timed to be questioned," she wrote. "Vanessa Guillen, baby girl I'm sorry that the Army FAILED you, I'm sorry that your Chain of Command FAILED you. You didn't deserve this, but now baby girl you can rest."

Many of those who posted criticized the military for not taking their concerns seriously enough and not helping them feel safe even after reporting sexual assaults.

Colonel Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and president of Protect our Defenders, a national organization focused on ending sexual violence in the military, told CBS News on Wednesday that the revelations on social media are part of the military's #MeToo awakening.

"The military has avoided a #MeToo moment or movement and a lot of that has to do with retaliation," Christensen said."Military survivors are in particular afraid of retaliation. I think what Vanessa Guillén's disappearance and death has done has energized this silent majority of survivors who were afraid to come forward and now they are speaking out because they know the consequences. They want to honor Vanessa."

"The military has a horrible track record of abuse of people who do speak out. And it's time for the military to seriously grapple with its own failures of handling sexual assault and sexual harassment," he added.

Despite efforts from the Department of Defense to address sexual assault, the amount of reports increased by 3% in fiscal year 2019, according to an annual review from the DOD released in April of this year. An anonymous survey released last year showed sexual assault in the military spiked nearly 40% in 2018. The report estimated 20,500 service members experienced some kind of "contact or penetrative sexual assault" that year.

Specialist Guillén, 20, went missing from the base on April 22. Following national pressure led by her family, activists and congress members, the Army began to treat the case as a criminal investigation on June 24 after suspecting foul play. Human remains were found almost a week later and the Army confirmed they belong to Guillén on Monday. 

Specialist Aaron Robinson and a woman identified as his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, have been identified as suspects in the case. Aguilar told investigators that Robinson said he killed Guillén by hitting her in the head with a hammer, and that the pair later disposed of her body, according to the criminal complaint filed against Aguilar. Robinson ran away from Fort Hood and died by suicide as police were closing in on him, local authorities said. 

Family lawyer Natalie Khawam accused Robinson of sexually harassing Guillén. Khawam said Sunday the military sexual harassment is an "epidemic" and demands attention from Congress. "You can't turn a blind eye anymore," she said.

The handling of the case has spurred calls for an independent investigation. Texas congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, who has been the leading public figure alongside the Guillén family, is one of 88 members of Congress requesting a probe by the acting Department of Defense inspector general Sean O'Donnell. 

"The United States military has a responsibility to ensure safety and well-being of the young women and men that take an oath to defend our country. In SPC Guillén's case, the U.S. Army failed both Vanessa and her family," Garcia said in a statement earlier this week. "There are still many questions left unanswered surrounding her disappearance and about how Fort Hood conducted its investigations."

Christensen said he fears there could have been a racial bias element with the investigation.

"Women of color in particular are less likely to have faith in the justice process and chain of command," he told CBS News. "We know that the military disciplines people of color at a greater rate than they do white people. It's very possible that this young Hispanic woman was disregarded from the very beginning because of that. Obviously, we don't know what the chain of command was thinking because they've been silent, but what I really fear is that they're covering up their inaction."

Christensen said he hopes Guillén's case will be the "final push" to get Congress to finally keep the military "accountable."

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