President Donald Trump met with the family of slain Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen at the White House on Thursday. They shared their grief and expressed their hopes that the military system that failed their daughter and other women will be improved.
The meeting came on the same day that Congress considered new sexual misconduct legislation and activists marched in the streets of Washington, D.C., to honor Guillen and demand safety and support for women sexually assaulted in the U.S. military.
Guillen's family supports both a congressional investigation and the new #IAmVanessaGuillen bill, which may make it easier to report sexual harassment that Guillen herself experienced in the military. They said the fellow Fort Hood soldier who killed her in April had sexually harassed her. The Army said investigators found no proof that happened.
Guillen's mother, Gloria Guillen, and several of Vanessa's siblings, including Yovana Guillen, stood at a podium in front of the U.S. Capitol and addressed reporters.
"We did most of our things together," she said. "Every Friday when she would come by home we would have small sister dates, we would pick each other's clothes, and we would go out. Those small special moments I will never forget."
She added that Vanessa fought for them, and now they would fight for her. "And I promise you we will get justice," she said. "I love you, Vane."
Supporters chanted, "Justice for Vanessa, Justice for Vanessa, Justice for Vanessa."
In the Oval Office, Gloria Guillen and President Trump sat in chairs next to the fireplace. Other visitors sat in two sofas. Guillen spoke in Spanish to the president as a translator spoke in English.
Who is responsible for her daughter's death? Guillen asked Trump. She asked him to help her find out the truth, reminded him that he also had children and asked him for justice.
Trump explained that the FBI and the Department of Justice were involved in the case. He said he supported looking into the issues they raised.
"So we’re going to look into it very powerfully," he said, "and we already have started, as you know, and we’ll get to the bottom of it. Maybe things can come out that will help other people in a situation like Vanessa."
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Army announced the five civilian experts who will conduct an independent review of the culture at Fort Hood and whether it is committed to preventing sexual misconduct.
Guillen was killed by a fellow soldier on April 22 during her time at Fort Hood. She was missing for more than two months before her mutilated body was found.
Guillen’s death sparked a #MeToo movement throughout the military. Veterans and active duty soldiers have used #IAmVanessaGuillen to share accounts of being raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed in the military, adding that their attackers have seen few, if any, repercussions.
The meetings and appearances on Thursday came a day after the U.S. Forces Command Inspector General shared his findings with Congress about the command climate at Fort Hood. It drew mixed reactions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The report found that the vast majority of soldiers at Fort Hood— more than 85 percent — felt comfortable reporting sexual harassment and assault. More than 90 percent reported trust in leadership.
U.S. Forces Command Inspector General Patrick Wempe testified before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. He said Fort Hood’s sexual harassment and assault prevention program—or SHARP—meets Army standards, though soldiers DID voice some concerns.
"Some soldiers expressed that junior leaders in particular lack the practical experience to respond to a sexual harassment or assault incident," he said. "Extended hiring timelines for new sharp program personnel can result in episodically unfilled positions. Finally, some soldiers indicated that the sharp training they receive is repetitious and unimaginative.
The #IAmVanessaGuillen bill aims to end the practice of involving command chains in the reporting of sex crimes.
The Army’s inspection began in late June and lasted just a few days. It didn’t look into Guillen’s unit, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Hood, because it was interrupted by the discovery of the young soldier’s body.
Officials returned to the base this week to finish that part of the inspection—but the results haven’t been released.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the subpanel on military personnel, questioned the inspection’s methodology—which involved talking to men and women at the same time.
"To get a real fulsome evaluation would require separating out the women so they could talk...freely without having it create retaliatory actions," she said.
Both Speier and El Paso Democrat Veronica Escobar hammered what they saw as inconsistencies in the findings.
"The report indicates that most soldiers responded that they would report assaults," Escobar said. "However the same investigation shows that just 50 percent of those that were assaulted in the last year actually reported it."
The IG team surveyed more than 225 soldiers from 12 battalions and six brigades. It also held small group sensing sessions and interviewed command teams.
Military-wide in 2019, there were nearly 8,000 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims or subjects--a 3% increase over 2018. The military also received just over 1,000 formal sexual harassment complaints. That’s a 10% increase.
This is a developing story and will be updated soon.
The Texas Newsroom's Rebecca Fogel contributed to this report.
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