Nearly 90 lawmakers are pushing for acting Defense Department Inspector General Sean O’Donnell to begin an independent probe into the Army’s handling of the disappearance, and now alleged murder, of a 20-year-old Fort Hood soldier.
Letters were sent Thursday and again Monday urging O’Donnell to use his agency’s role as an oversight authority to provide answers for the missing soldier’s family.
Spc. Vanessa Guillen had been missing since April 22 before her remains were discovered about 20 miles from post along the Leon River last week. The remains were officially identified over the July 4 holiday weekend.
A criminal complaint filed in federal court Friday alleged that one of Guillen’s fellow soldiers killed her using a hammer in an armory on the central Texas Army installation before enlisting the help of his civilian girlfriend in disposing of the remains.
But concerns about how the case has been handled have been present from the start. The missing soldier’s family has repeatedly said Guillen told them she was being sexually harassed by a non-commissioned officer in her chain of command.
The young soldier, who was assigned to 3rd Cavalry Regiment, never filed an official complaint because she did not trust her leadership to take her report seriously, an attorney for the family said.
Army CID Senior Special Agent Damon Phelps, who is investigating Guillen’s case, told reporters late last week that his department has found no evidence that Guillen was sexually harassed. Spc. Aaron Robinson, who is accused of killing Guillen and who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound when confronted by police, was not in charge of Guillen, and it remains unclear whether the sexual harassment allegations involved him or another soldier.
But the allegation “fits a broader pattern of the military downplaying the severity of sexual harassment and assault in the ranks,” according to a letter sent to O’Donnell on Thursday by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Both lawmakers are on their respective chamber’s armed services subcommittees for personnel.
Col. Ralph Overland, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander, appointed a senior investigating officer to conduct an AR 15-6 Investigation into the sexual harassment allegations.
Speier and Gillibrand also said in their letter they are concerned that it appears the Army only began marshaling “significant additional investigative resources” after Guillen’s family began a large social media campaign, which included support from actress Salma Hayek and scores of activists.
“If the Army must rely on relatives, not commanders or comrades, to take the initiative in locating missing soldiers, there is something fundamentally broken in the institution,” Speier and Gillibrand said.
Fort Hood officials have pushed back against the claim that the search for Guillen did not pick up until after her family began speaking out. In several press releases over the past month, officials said that soldiers logged hundreds of hours searching buildings, barracks, fields, training areas, lakes and trails across post before Guillen’s remains were found.
However, lawmakers want answers that go beyond the search itself.
A second letter sent Monday by Rep. Sylvia García, D-Texas, who has been assisting the Guillen family during the investigation, raised more concerns about the sexual harassment allegations and what it means for Latina service members. The letter was backed by 87 members of Congress.
García’s letter referenced the service members who have been sharing personal stories of sexual harassment and assault using #IAmVanessaGuillen on social media.
Those stories “reinforce a troubling reality” revealed in the Defense Department’s fiscal 2019 report on sexual assault in the military, which disclosed a 3 percent increase in the number of sexual assault cases compared to 2018, García’s letter stated.
“This epidemic of sexual violence disproportionately impacts women of color, who are also less likely to report their sexual harassment or assault out of fear of retaliation,” García’s letter reads, noting that the concern is all the more troubling given that Latinos “are the fastest-growing population in the military,” accounting for up to 16 percent of all active-duty military.
“Yet, we are hopeful that a full and independent investigation by the DoD Inspector General’s Office will begin to provide the Guillen family with the answers and justice they seek,” García’s letter added.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.