FORT HOOD, Texas — Vanessa Guillen’s family has spent the past year railing at U.S. Army leadership to end the culture of sexual harassment at Fort Hood, where the 20-year-old soldier was bludgeoned to death with a hammer last April before being dismembered and buried in concrete.
On Friday, 373 days after Guillen vanished from the Texas military base, Army officials finally admitted that the Guillen family was right all along: Vanessa Guillen was sexually harassed at least twice in the year before she died, and she told fellow soldiers and friends, some of whom reported it.
She had also confided in her mother about what took place. Since Guillen’s slaying, her name has become a rallying cry for the “I Am Vanessa Guillen” movement, members of which seek systemic change in the way women in the military are treated.
A total of 21 officers and noncommissioned officers from Fort Hood have been disciplined since Guillen’s murder, including the unnamed superior officer who harassed Guillen, according to The Associated Press. Those disciplined include eight senior commanders who were fired from their posts.
“These actions are in addition to the previously announced reliefs of Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, former deputy commanding general of III Corps; and Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, the former commander and command sergeant major of 3rd Cavalry Regiment,” Friday’s announcement read. “As of today, accountability actions have been initiated against members of Spc. Guillen’s chain of command from junior through senior leaders.”
None have been criminally charged in the case. The AP pointed out, however, that in many cases, being relieved of a command or having letters of reprimand added to a personnel file can end a military career.
The 271-page report states that Guillen’s alleged killer, Spc. Aaron Robinson, was not one of the people who harassed her. It instead states that Robinson was accused of sexually harassing a different soldier.
“The investigation found no credible evidence to conclude that Spc. Robinson sexually harassed Guillen, or that they had any relationship outside of their work setting,” the news release said.
Guillen’s family and their attorney don’t buy that.
“If you can’t say why he murdered her, you can’t say he didn’t sexually harass her,” attorney Natalie Khawam told the AP Friday.
The report does blame military officials for allowing Robinson to flee the base, where the murder suspect had been confined to his quarters, after Guillen’s remains were found June 30. Robinson shot and killed himself on a Killeen street as Army investigators closed in to arrest him.
Fort Hood commanders spent months denying that Guillen reported sexual harassment. Her family initially said they didn’t think she’d reported the crime to her commanders out of fear of retaliation.
Guillen’s older sister, Mayra Guillen, told ABC News that the Army needs to do more to hold the men who harassed her sister accountable for their actions.
“The Army keeps trying to protect this name and I want to understand why,” Mayra Guillen said of her sister’s accused harasser. “Why not just try to take a step forward, admit that you were wrong, fix it and make yourself look better so the nation could trust you again?”
Mayra Guillen said reading the lengthy report has been emotional and difficult. The entire family is frustrated.
“Vanessa’s case was severely mishandled,” the family said in a statement obtained by the AP. “We are upset that the names of the soldiers that sexually harassed Vanessa are not included. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating for all of us.”
The family identified the soldier accused of harassing Guillen as Sgt. 1st Class Jovanny Rivera, according to the wire service.
Khawam told ABC News that the Guillen family was devastated by the latest investigatory report. She castigated Army officials, first, for not taking Vanessa Guillen’s claims of sexual harassment seriously and second, for not keeping adequate tabs on Robinson after he became a suspect in her killing.
“People reported it, she reported it to her fellow soldiers, and yet it all fell on deaf ears,” Khawam said.
A high-profile disappearance and murder
Vanessa Guillen, a Houston native who enlisted in 2018, was reported missing after she vanished April 22, 2020, from the base, where she served in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment as a small arms and artillery repairer. The subsequent investigation into her disappearance determined that Robinson, who worked in a different arms room, was the last person to see Guillen alive.
The report released Friday offered more detail into Guillen’s disappearance than has previously been made public. It was in the early days of the pandemic, and shelter-in-place policies had been instituted on Fort Hood.
Guillen’s job was considered essential, however, and she and her colleagues were on duty though they were allowed to work in civilian clothing.
According to the report summary, Guillen had two tasks on the morning of her murder: to inspect and process broken equipment in one arms room, and to visually validate the serial number of a machine gun, which took her to the arms room where Robinson worked, located in a second building.
“She arrived at the first arms room at 10:03 a.m. and began her work. The second arms room, located in a nearby building, was opened and occupied by SPC Aaron Robinson, the (A Troop Regimental Engineer Squadron) armorer,” the document states. “At approximately 10:15 a.m., Spc. Guillen went to the second arms room to validate the serial number.
“At 10:23 a.m., Spc. Guillen’s supervisor received a text of the machine gun’s serial number from Spc. Guillen’s phone. This was the last known contact anyone had with Spc. Guillen.”
More than 40 minutes later, the soldier who opened the first arms room texted Guillen to see when she’d be back. When there was no response, the soldier safeguarded Guillen’s military ID and access card, her debit card and her keys, which she’d left behind in the arms room. The soldier and their supervisor then went looking for Guillen in Robinson’s arms room, but the door was locked.
Read the summary of the investigative report below.
The soldier contacted Guillen’s roommate but the roommate hadn’t seen Guillen since she left the barracks that morning, the report says.
By 8 p.m., Guillen’s friends on base were worried. The staff duty officer was notified that night and an initial search party of six soldiers searched for Guillen from 10:15 p.m. to 2:25 a.m. the next day.
The search resumed a few hours later and by 7:30 a.m., senior leadership was involved.
Guillen’s supervisors were immediately suspicious because Guillen had a reputation as a good soldier. The fact that she’d left her personal belongings behind in the arms room was also unsettling.
Mayra Guillen, who had also been unable to reach her sister, had driven all night and arrived at Fort Hood in the early morning hours of April 23.
Vanessa Guillen’s regiment continued searching all barracks, the arms rooms, the motor pools and unit areas, the report summary states. Just before noon, Army CID investigators took over the case.
Authorities allege that Robinson, for a reason still not clear, bludgeoned Guillen to death in his arms room the morning of April 22. After he killed her, Robinson placed Guillen’s body into a large Pelican storage case and loaded it into his vehicle.
Witnesses reported seeing Robinson with the case the day Guillen disappeared.
Robinson then moved the case about 30 miles away, to a spot near the Leon River. He allegedly enlisted the help of Cecily Aguilar, his civilian girlfriend, to dismember Guillen’s body.
They tried to burn her remains before burying her concrete-encased remains in three separate shallow graves, authorities said.
Aguilar is facing federal charges in the case. Her defense last week sought to have the case against her dismissed.
Guillen’s slaying prompted multiple investigations into the command climate at Fort Hood. In December, Army officials either fired or suspended 14 Fort Hood officers following a review by an independent panel of civilians.
The AP reported that the panel determined military leaders weren’t properly dealing with the base’s high rates of violent crime, sexual abuse and harassment, drug use and other issues. It also found that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, was understaffed, overwhelmed and had inexperienced investigators.
“I have determined the issues at Fort Hood are directly related to leadership failures,” then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said at the time. “I am gravely disappointed that leaders failed to effectively create a climate that treated all soldiers with dignity and respect, and that failed to reinforce everyone’s obligation to prevent and properly respond to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
The report detailed Friday was the result of an AR 15-6 investigation led by Gen. John Murray, commanding general of U.S. Army Futures Command. Murray and his team interviewed 151 witnesses, reviewed over 6,000 emails and analyzed over 11,500 pages of documents.
Failures of Fort Hood leadership
The investigative team determined that Guillen, a private first class who was posthumously promoted to specialist, was in her troop orderly room in the summer of 2019 when a supervisor made an inappropriate sexual comment in Spanish.
Guillen, who was Hispanic, translated the comment as an invitation to participate in a “threesome,” the report’s summary states.
“Following this incident, another supervisor noticed a marked change in (Guillen’s) demeanor, which prompted the supervisor to ask if she was OK,” the summary says. “It was then that Spc. Guillen reported the incident to her supervisor and another soldier. She later confided in select peers.”
Two soldiers reported the incident to unit leadership between Sept. 16, 2019, and Oct. 9, 2019, but no investigation was initiated.
Instead, Guillen’s supervisor targeted her, calling her out in front of her peers and repeatedly making “an example” out of her.
The second incident took place that September, during a regimental field training exercise.
“This same supervisor encountered Spc. Guillen while she performed personal hygiene in the wood line and Spc. Guillen reported that this made her uncomfortable,” according to the report summary. “During this time, she was under cover in the wood line.”
The supervisor, who was conducting a perimeter check, encountered Guillen a second time on the way back from the check. Though he knew she was there, he did not deviate to avoid her.
Guillen told a colleague she believed the supervisor purposefully tried to “watch her wash up.” She was adamant about not wanting to report the incident out of fear she’d be the one to get in trouble, the report states.
The Army had a sexual harassment and assault prevention program in place, but the independent review panel that delivered its findings in December found that the program was not a priority to base leadership. Commanders focused on soldiers’ military readiness and “completely and utterly neglected” the prevention of sexual assault.
Investigating officers in the Army’s probe found that while there was evidence to back Guillen’s claims of sexual harassment, there was no evidence that it was related to her murder.
The report found that while the search for Guillen was immediate and well-coordinated, Guillen’s unit didn’t follow accountability standards for its soldiers during the shelter-in-place order. That oversight resulted in the initial belief that Guillen was where she was supposed to be the afternoon she was slain.
“Due to a lack of sufficient guidance, misunderstanding existed surrounding the purpose of the barracks room checks, resulting in a duty non-commissioned officer reporting accountability of Spc. Guillen on the afternoon of 22 April, without personally confirming her whereabouts,” the document states.
Read the entire 271-page report on Fort Hood’s response to Vanessa Guillen’s disappearance and murder below.
The report also criticizes Efflandt, who at the time was the acting senior commander of Fort Hood, for having “misjudged the significance” of Guillen’s disappearance. Efflandt and his staff were “overly reluctant” to engage with the media and correct inaccurate information during the highly publicized search for Guillen, according to the report.
“By taking this cautious stance, the acting senior commander failed to react appropriately to the high-profile incident over time,” the summary states. “This contributed to an inability to inform and educate the public in a timely manner, and (to) maintain transparency with the Guillen family.
“By the time Fort Hood developed a media communications strategy on 29 June, Fort Hood had lost the trust of the Guillen Family, the surrounding community and the nation.”
Efflandt was one of the Army officials who lost his post in December.
The Army itself was criticized for its ineffectiveness at engaging in social media, which played a huge role in the negative view of Fort Hood’s response to Guillen’s disappearance. Public affairs officials on the base and at Army CID were “ill-staffed, ill-trained and ill-prepared” to address the social media environment and “the Army ceded the social media space,” according to the report summary.
The investigation also found that Guillen’s disappearance highlighted the gaps and ambiguities in the Army’s “Absent Without Leave,” or AWOL, reporting. Typically, a soldier was considered AWOL after 24 hours without reporting during an accountability formation, the report states.
Guillen technically fit into that category. Even though officials believed almost immediately that her absence was not voluntary, Guillen was listed as AWOL from April 24 to June 30 — the day her remains were found.
The same was true for Fort Hood Pvt. Gregory Wedel Morales, who was declared AWOL following his August 2019 disappearance, despite his family’s certainty that he was the victim of foul play.
Morales’ skeletal remains were found during the search for Guillen. The 23-year-old Oklahoma native, who was days away from his Army discharge, had been shot to death and dumped in a field about four miles from the base.
His AWOL status was removed only after an autopsy proved he had been dead since his disappearance, Morales’ mother told the Army Times.