Friday, January 29, 2021

Vanessa Guillen and the Need for Accountability: Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Military

 By: Isidro Ortiz, Ph.D.;  reprinted with permission, first published in Draft Notices -Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft newsletter Vol. 41, No. 4; Oct.- Dec. 2020 

The murder of Army soldier Vanessa Guillen and the pleas by her family for action and accountability in the military continue to evoke actions in policy-making circles. During the week of September 12, members of Congress took a series of steps intended to prevent future tragedies.

On September 14, spearheaded by Congresswoman Jackie Speier, chair of the House Armed Services Committee on Military Personnel, 52 Congressional Representatives issued two letters urging the Chairmen and Ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to retain provisions addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence in the military in any conference agreement for the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act(NDAA). The first letter called for the establishment of a military-civilian task force on domestic violence and improvement of data collection about intimate-partner violence and the creation of new military protective orders to better safeguard victims by improving enforceability across jurisdictions and improvement of coordination of support service for survivors of sexual trauma. The second letter provided a rationale for the creation of a sexual assault prosecution program at the military service academies.

The actions were taken in response to the “failure of efforts to strengthen prevention and response of sexual harassment and assault.” On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi met with members of Vanessa Guillen’s family and committed to a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives of forthcoming bipartisan legislation. Later that day Spier and 95 co-sponsors from both political parties introduced the I am Vanessa Guillen Act of 2020. The legislation was offered as a “response to the resounding calls for change” by offering provisions that would revolutionize the military’s response to missing service members, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

More specifically, as detailed by Spier’s office, the legislation would:

-Move prosecution decisions on sexual assault and sexual harassment cases outside of the chain of command to an office of Chief prosecutor within each military service;

-Create a standalone military offense for sexual harassment;

-Establish trained sexual harassment investigators who are outside of the chains of command of the complainants and the accused;

-Create a confidential reporting process for sexual harassment that is integrated with DOD’s Catch a Serial Offender database;

-Require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the military’s procedures for finding missing service members and compare them with procedures used by civilian law enforcement; and

 -Establish a process by which service members can make claims for negligence and seek compensatory damages against the Department of Defense in the case of sexual assault or harassment.

 Spier announced that the legislation was a step toward ending the “endless cycle of harassment, assault and retaliation for those who spoke out and the deep roots of a toxic culture that needed to be eradicated so that survivors are taken seriously and treated with respect, and assailants are held accountable.”

 Three days later, acting on the oversight authority of congress, Spier and six colleagues visited Fort Hood to investigate military members’ deaths and the existence of a culture of violence and retaliation on the base. During the visit the delegation met with the leadership of the base and rank and file service members and examined facilities, noting extensive problems on the base. At the conclusion, she said:

 “Given the Department of Defense’s investment of nearly $1 billion on the rampant problems of sexual harassment and assault over the past decade, and with too little progress to show for it, I strongly believe the systemic problems at Fort Hood require further congressional oversight, which is why I will return to the base in a few months and continue to hold leadership to account.”

Isidro Ortiz is a professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies at San Diego State University. He is also a board member of the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities

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