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In Vanessa Guillén case, a Latino family's push for answers leads to military reform

The disappearance and killing of the Fort Hood soldier resonated with Latino communities nationwide as they become the fastest growing minority population in the military.
Image: Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for US Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen at Power House Gym in Houston, Texas
Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen at the Power House Gym in Houston, on Aug. 14, 2020.Mark Felix / AFP - Getty Images

Lupe Guillén always wears a pin that says "#JusticeForVanessa" ever since the remains of her sister, Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, were found near Fort Hood in July, more than two months after she disappeared from the Texas military base where she was stationed.

"We're going to fight for you because that's family for us," Lupe said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon alongside her parents and her older sister, Mayra.

But the family has "been fighting since April 22" when Vanessa was last seen at a parking lot at Fort Hood, her mother, Gloria, said in Spanish. Advocates and family members quickly organized rallies outside the base and launched a #FindVanessaGuillen hashtag social media campaign.

More than two months later, the calls to #FindVanessaGuillen turned into demands for #JusticeForVanessaGuillen when her body was found near Fort Hood. Since then, the Guilléns have repeatedly denounced the command climate and culture at Fort Hood while advocating for the protection of soldiers stationed at the military base with some of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army.

People pay respects at a mural of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier based at nearby Fort Hood on July 6, 2020 in Austin, Texas.Sergio Flores / Getty Images file

Weeks before Vanessa was found dead, the Army opened a separate inquiry looking into allegations that she had been sexually harassed at Fort Hood after the Guilléns said she had told relatives and Army colleagues about her harassment. The allegations prompted countless service members to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on social media using the #IAmVanessaGuillen hashtag.

'Could have been one of our daughters'

After Vanessa went missing, the family's efforts galvanized their community in Texas, celebrities such as the actor Salma Hayek, elected officials and Latino advocacy groups who demanded answers — further highlighting how a Mexican American family's push for answers is sparking meaningful change to the military at a time when increasingly more people of color and women are enlisting in the armed forces.

"She could have been any one of our daughters," Rep. Sylvia García, D-Texas, who has been helping the Guilléns for months, told NBC News. "She could have been our niece, our granddaughter, everybody identified with it," she said, as she choked up with emotion.

Vanessa's case resonated with Latino communities nationwide as they become the fastest growing minority population in the military. While the military is still predominantly white, Black and Hispanic adults represent "sizable and growing shares" of the armed forces, according to the Pew Research Center. Women currently make up about 18 percent of all active-duty military members, while Latinos represent roughly 16 percent.

"Almost every Latino neighborhood now has a Vanessa Guillén mural," García said. "Latinos will continue to stand with them because we've stood with them from the beginning."

In June, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) added an additional $25,000 to the Army's existing $25,000 reward for anyone with information leading up to Vanessa's whereabouts. Since then, the nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization has continuously been working with Army leadership to "create an independent process" to investigate matters that led up to Vanessa's death, the organization said in a statement Tuesday.

LULAC also met with a five-member civilian panel conducting an independent review into Fort Hood's culture between August and September.

“LULAC has been fighting for the men and women in uniform such as Vanessa Guillen to make sure that when they serve, they are protected, mentored and motivated to serve their country,” LULAC National President Domingo García said in a statement. "Vanessa Guillen’s life and her tragic death have hopefully motivated and are bringing about the necessary changes in the Army."

An investigation prompts changes

The command climate at Fort Hood created a "permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment," the independent review concluded.

During a congressional hearing Wednesday, review committee member Jonathan Harmon said that while most of the soldiers they spoke to reported being sexually assaulted or harassed by other similarly-ranked soldiers, particularly within the lower ranks, they did come across many incidents in which higher-ranking officers "were being predators."

The findings triggered the removal of 14 Fort Hood leaders from their positions and prompted several military policy reforms, including revisions to the Army’s sexual harassment and prevention program, as well as the 'missing soldier' protocols, among other changes.

"People have been trying to do this for years and never worked," Natalie Khawam, an attorney for the Guillén family, said during a press conference Tuesday.

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy also accepted all the 70 recommendations issued by the review committee to improve the culture at Fort Hood.

"It's going to be our job to continue watching and providing oversight and advocacy to make sure that they make the changes that they're talking about," García said.

The last five recommendations address the Army's "need for a human touch in communicating" with families during ongoing investigations, independent review committee member Jack White said during the congressional hearing Wednesday. But when García asked him if the Army is prepared to address families in a culturally and linguistically competent way, White responded by saying, "that's part of the problem."

"Vanessa was the beloved daughter of a family that was very religious, very close-knit, very bilingual and very bicultural. I don't think that the Army is prepared today to deal with that type of soldier," García said, adding that her office has received calls from about 40 families across the country who are struggling to communicate with the Army during tragic times due to cultural and linguistic barriers.

Members of Congress will file the "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act" again early next year, said García, one of the original co-sponsors of the legislation seeking to make sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice and improve the Department of Defense's response to sex-related offenses through independent investigations.

"I'm fighting for Vanessa, as her sister, but I'm also fighting for this as a woman and someone who wanted to sign up for the U.S. Army," Lupe read. "I ask everyone who hears about Vanessa's name or hears about sexual violence in the military, or anywhere, to endorse the act because this will keep my sister's legacy alive and believe me, it will save lives."

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