IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

I Am Vanessa Guillén Act brings 'historic' military reform as calls for justice persist

As a new law adds protections for victims of sexual violence, the mother of the slain Fort Hood soldier hopes to "learn the truth of what happened" to her daughter.
Image: Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for Vanessa Guillen on Aug. 14, 2020, in Houston.
Candles and flowers decorate a makeshift memorial for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén in Houston in August 2020.Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images file

Calls for justice in the killing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén have been partly answered as relatives, lawmakers, celebrities and advocates celebrate the passage of the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act to help and protect victims of sexual violence in the military.

"The best way to honor my sister was by having history being made in her honor, in her memory," Mayra Guillén, Vanessa's older sister, said at a news conference Thursday.

Vanessa Guillén, 20, was a private first class stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. She was last seen at a parking lot at the base in April 2020. Her dismembered remains were found near the base two months later. She was promoted to specialist posthumously.

Guillén’s family said she had told relatives and colleagues at Fort Hood, which has some of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army, that she had been sexually harassed at the base.

Key parts of the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act became law after they were included in the $770 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which President Joe Biden signed Dec. 27. It includes criminalizing sexual harassment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, improving how certain officials respond to sex-related offenses through independent investigations and removing the decision to prosecute sexual misconduct cases from service members’ chains of command.

"Our soldiers are protected with freedoms, rights and protections they never had before," Natalie Khawam, an attorney for the Guillén family, said at the news conference. "We lost Vanessa, but we gained rights for our military and our service members."

The new law excludes commanders from being involved in military sexual harassment or sexual assault investigations by directing them to request independent investigations within 72 hours of receiving formal complaints from members of the armed forces. The commanders must also forward the complaints to their next superior officers in the chain of command who are authorized to convene general courts-martial.

To enforce further oversight, the law also creates a mechanism to track allegations of retaliation by victims of sexual misconduct and moves prosecutorial decisions in cases involving retaliation to special prosecutors.

“This is a historic moment,” said the singer Gloria Estefan, who spotlighted Guillén’s case on her talk show nearly two years ago. “Vanessa is changing the world.”

Rep. Sylvia García, D-Texas, who has been helping the Guilléns for months, said, “The leadership that failed Vanessa has been removed from their positions.”

Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, shot and killed himself when police moved in to arrest him in connection with Guillén's disappearance and death, authorities said in July 2020. Shortly afterward, a woman identified as Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, was arrested on federal charges of tampering with evidence and was accused of helping Robinson dispose of Guillén’s body.

Aguilar, 23, pleaded not guilty last year. On Thursday, her motion to dismiss her indictment was denied.

Gloria Guillén, Vanessa's mother, said that while she is proud of the new law, "what I really want is justice for my daughter."

"A new generation of young people will be protected because of my daughter's tragic death. And she's the only one that knows what happened," Gloria Guillén said in Spanish. "I just hope we can get justice and learn the truth of what happened."

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.