Vanessa’s remains were found in late June after missing from Fort Hood, Texas for more than two months. A soldier was accused of her death and his ex-girlfriend was accused of playing a role in her disappearance. The suspect, Spec. Aaron Robinson, 20, killed himself when approached by the police.
Guillén had told friends and family that she was being sexually harassed on the base, including by her eventual killer. She was worried, however, about reporting it because the soldiers outranked her.
On July 11, I joined a group of nearly eighty individuals at a vigil in honor of Spec. Vanessa Guillen at the Capitol grounds in Des Moines. They clamored, “enough is enough.” Those were the words every speaker repeated emotionally during the vigil, one of many around the country.
Vanessa’s family has been demanding answers from the military and asking for changes on how reports of sexual harassment are handled by the armed forces.
Organizer of Saturday’s event and founder of Latinx Immigrants of Iowa Jose Alvarado of Des Moines thought that it was important to bring light to the issue of sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
“No one should be subjected to any harm, aggression or be killed because of this,” he said. “Unfortunately, when this happens to a Latina, they become a statistic, and nobody pays attention.”
He added that there were other cases where Latinas were murdered and there has been no media attention focused on them.
“We have to do something to prevent these killings; we all come from a woman. This is a call to say enough is enough,” said Jose.
The Center for Disease Control indicates that more than 1 in 3 women experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during her lifetime, and nearly 1 in 5 women have experienced completed or attempted rape during her lifetime.
Alvarado also feels that “it is important to bring more attention to these issues because women, in many cases, cannot enjoy the freedom of going out and about without the fear of someone attacking them.”
He pointed out that when a Latino male is the perpetrator in the attack or murder of a white female, that is when the media and others become focused and it makes the news. Iowans know this is exactly what happened during the Mollie Tibbetts murder case in the summer of 2018. Even President Trump denounced and politicized it. When it came to Vanessa, his silence was noted by many.
Still, at the vigil, speakers made sure to raise their support for Vanessa and other victims.
“The military failed Vanessa. They didn’t protect her and now we raise our voices to demand justice for her death and all the women who have been silenced by their deaths,” said Jodi Bowden-Fuentes from LUNA (Latinas Unidas por un Nuevo Amanecer) during her speech. LUNA provides advocacy and counseling services for Latino victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Eli Morales, 29, a service member from Chicago shared that it is her duty to speak up because Vanessa is her sister in arms, and she does not have a voice anymore.
“It’s hard to decide to join the army as a woman, but it is even harder when you are a minority,” Morales said.
Just like Vanessa, Eli wanted to join the military since she was a child, but her mom always opposed the idea.
“When I heard about Vanessa’s story, it hurt a lot, and it’s important to speak up to fight for justice and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
She believes there is something wrong in a system that mishandles and ignores sexual harassment complaints. She shared that there is high rate of retaliation when people report sexual abuse in the military and that should be zero.
“They should listen to their soldiers,” Morales said. “All the other women that have suffered what Vanessa did, they need to get justice, and there needs to be accountability through the chain of command too.”
When I asked her about being a Latina in the military, where she has served for six years, she said that harassment happens to women of all colors, but that is more difficult to be a Latina in that system.
It is no secret that sexual harassment and sexual assault have long been serious problems in the armed forces. Both men and women are victims of sexual assault perpetrated by military service members. In a report from Battered Women’s Justice Project, nearly 25% of women veterans who seek health care services from the Department of Veterans Affairs report experiencing at least one sexual assault while in the military compared to slightly more than 1% of male veterans.
The vigil brought the Latino community and advocates together to shed light on this young woman, who in many ways represents many others suffering at the hands of a system that does not seem to care nor respect its victims.
The press statement from organizers reads: “Vanessa was murdered where she worked; Vanessa was violated, dismembered, and buried on the banks of a river. The system failed her and now Vanessa is just another statistic. Like Vanessa, there are many Latina women who have died and their voices unheard. Let us never forget Vanessa and the many victims of sexual abuse.”
Enough is enough!
by Claudia Thrane
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