PFC Vanessa Guillen, age 20, was last seen alive on April 22. On July 5, her remains were identified. What happened in the weeks and months in between are shining a light on the military’s process of reporting and investigating sexual harassment and assault in the ranks.
Vanessa Guillen’s Disappearance & Death Sheds Light on DOD Sexual Harassment Reporting Flaws
According to reports from Guillen’s family and friends, she had confided in them about several instances of sexual harassment in the months leading up to her disappearance. ABC News reported that Guillen had experienced repeated harassment, including a supervisor watching her shower. However, she had not reported anything to her chain of command out of a fear of reprisals.
Since then, female troops and veterans have flooded social media using the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, sharing their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment in the military.
Flawed Reporting Practices Exposed?
From across the services, women are coming forward to share their experiences – and retaliation for reporting.
Military Times shared the story of former Army Spc. Ashley Martinez, who said that her chain of command actively worked to discredit her after reporting a rape. Ultimately, Martinez left the Army as a result of this process.
Martinez is one among hundred of sexual assault survivors who are coming forward in the wake of Guillen’s disappearance and death. Many survivors report that their cases were ignored or that their were attempts to discredit their accounts. Some shared that they ultimately left the military while their attackers continue to progress through the ranks.
Hundreds Share Stories of Survival Online
Survivors are coming forward and sharing their stories online and with media outlets. News organizations like ABC, PBS, The Guardian and Military Times are all sharing stories of sexual assault, harassment and retaliation. Popular true crime podcast, The Murder Squad, dedicated two separate episodes to Guillen’s case exploring additional unsolved murders and discussing the military sexual assault reporting process as well.
Across the different outlets, the theme of retaliation for reporting was consistent.
Army veteran Tiffany Summa told PBS News Hour that she was raped in 2009. She waited 6 years for the results of her rape kit. When she summoned up the courage to report it to her command, she was told to bury it and ignore it. Summa shared that she was further threatened that this high ranking officer would “bury” her if she did not comply.
Legislation was proposed in 2013 to remove the chain of command, including officers like the one Summa encountered, and place investigations in the hands of independent prosecutors. However, this bill was countered with proposal to keep investigations centered around the chain of command. Ultimately, the chain of command remains central to investigations of sexual assault and harassment.
In addition, military members are prohibited from suing the military for damages over injuries that occur while they are in the service.
Options for Reporting Sexual Assault & Harassment in Ranks
There are two types of reports that victims can make, restricted and unrestricted. Restricted reporting limits options in terms of pursuing prosecution while also offering supports like therapy or medical care. Unrestricted reporting essentially makes the report public, allowing for military prosecution.
Victims may report sexual assault to:
- medical professional
- chain of command
- military law enforcement
- civilian law enforcement
- SARC/SHARP representative
- therapist or other mental health care provider
Victims wishing to remain anonymous or receive assistance without triggering an investigation can file restricted reports with SARC/SHARP, a medical professional.
Once an unrestricted report has been made it cannot be converted to a restricted report. However, survivors may elect to change their restricted report to an unrestricted report in order to trigger an investigation.
DOD Stats Show Troubling Trend
For fiscal year 2018, the most recent data available, 24.2% of female troops indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment. In addition, 6.2% indicated that they had been sexually assaulted.
Of those who reported sexual assault, 21% of those cases met the criteria of retaliation or retaliatory behavior.
The report also noted that experiencing sexual harassment statistically increased the odds of sexual assault. Approximately 1 in 5 victims of sexual harassment would be sexually assaulted.
There was also a statistically significant increase of women reporting sexual assault across all service branches.
It should be noted that these numbers indicate sexual harassment and assault that was reported to the service member’s chain of command. It does not account for cases that were not reported.