COLORADO SPRINGS — The holiday weekend brought a tragic conclusion to the disappearance of U.S. Army Pfc. Vanessa Guillen.
Her body was found near a river around 20 miles away from Fort Hood, where she was stationed.
A family attorney said Guillen’s remains were finally identified after her face was too bludgeoned to identify through medical or dental records.
Guillen’s family said she had told them about multiple sexual assaults but did not report them because she felt the soldiers higher up in the ranks would not have taken the allegations seriously.
Guillen’s killing has sparked a national social media movement from former female military members, #IAmVanessaGuillen, detailing belittlement and suppression in the face of their sexual assault and harassment claims.
“They don’t stop sexual harrassment. They tell you it’s normal and sometimes it’s females. Females will tell other females, ‘This is normal. This just happens. You just have to deal with it,'” said Janessa Keeling, a former sergeant during her time as an active guard reservist.
Keeling said she didn’t report her assault to military commanders, rather considering civilian law enforcement, because she didn’t believe the culprit would have been properly held accountable.
“The person who sexually assaulted me, who raped me, was an E6 [staff sergeant]. They would protect him because there is this unspoken mentality in the military of ‘Don’t embarrass the military.’ ‘Don’t bring shame.'” Keeling said.
Several women who used the hashtag told their experiences of being ignored or dissuaded from pursuing further action by those higher up in battalion command.
One was Summer Justice, a former Petty Officer 3rd Class, in the Navy for five years.
While stationed in California, she began to receive text messages from an unknown person commenting on her clothing on several days, with no one in sight. She said it disturbed her.
She asked her colleagues to help identify the phone number. Once she had, she began to see him at several places around the town where they were stationed–too much, she felt, to be a coincidence. She then reported it to superiors.
“At that point, I was pulled into an office and asked, ‘do you really want to risk a man’s 20-year-career over some text messages?’ That’s exactly how it was put to me,” Justice said.
Justice did not end up filing a report, rather relying on her superior’s promise to address the behavior with the man in question. For a few months it was fine, then she was deployed to Afghanistan. In the last several months, he was promoted to her squad leader.
“I found myself in ‘trouble’ a lot more often. He would bring me into his office for things I felt were trivial.” she said.
Justice lives in Colorado Springs now and is a radio host. She hopes to use her platform to help others by posting her tweet.
“The brass never got word of what was happening below because it never made it past that point, and if you tried to push it past that point, you might be a troublemaker or labeled a whiner or a cry baby. So you just want to leave it along or let it be until the next time something else happens or your friend is sexually assaulted,” she said.
To that point, Keeling, who is a writer, is compiling stories like hers and Justice’s into an anthology currently titled “The Untold.”
“This is a way for them to speak about that without fear of reprisal,” Keeling said.
Keeling encourages female military members to report sexual assault and harassment to people outside of their unit or battalion’s command structure–either by going to civilian authorities or reporting through SHARP to a different commander.
They hope to use their experiences as a form of inspiration for survivors now and in the future.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s time to start telling your story.” Justice said.