Content warning: Sexual assault
Just after the world was consumed by COVID-19, I became involved in a social media awareness campaign focused on bringing much-needed attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault that takes place within the military. It is important for victims of sexual harassment and violence to know that they have a voice. This effort offers victims and allies a way to speak out in a creative and impactful way. As with most movements of this nature, #IAmVanessaGuillen all began with a tragedy and the community’s reaction to it.
On April 22, 2020, Specialist (SPC) Vanessa Guillen went missing on Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. The search started on April 23, 2020, and was concluded on June 30, 2020, when her remains were found. There are allegations that SPC Guillen was sexually assaulted before her death.
As a result of SPC Vanessa Guillen’s death and the allegations of sexual harassment and assault, thousands of American women service members and Veterans have bravely stood in solidarity in support of #JusticeforVanessaGuillen. For the first time, many have courageously taken to social media to tell their own stories of surviving sexual harassment and assault. Examples of this can be followed at #IAmVanessaGuillen.
It was important to me to write this blog and share this tragic story of loss to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault in the military. I also want to be clear that every story is different, and what I’m sharing is my own point of view. As a woman who served in the Army for 20 years, I know firsthand how prevalent sexual harassment and assaults are in the military.
For many years I was in denial about my own experience of sexual assault. It has taken me 16 years to be honest with myself, and now with others. I carried the weight of shame and guilt for far too long, and now as I am 10 years removed from service, I can finally stand up and say that I was sexually assaulted. I can now admit that it was not my fault, and that I am not weak due to the assault.
You may be asking yourself, “Why come out about it now?” or “What can be gained by sharing this experience with others?” Well, here’s why—the more we talk about it, the safer it will be for those who are assaulted to come forward and hopefully receive medical and mental health resources.
It is also crucial to create a community in which sexual assault can be reported, because it will increase the chances that the perpetrator will be prosecuted. Only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. That means about three out of four assaults go unreported. Within the military however, only 43 percent of female victims and 10 percent of male victims reported assaults (RAINN, The Criminal Justice System: Statistics).
As a result of the tragic event that took place at Fort Hood, Texas, a group of lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan bill called “The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020,” named after slain soldier Vanessa Guillén on September 16, that is designed to help victims report sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military. It would allow service members to report sexual harassment and assault to a third party and make sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The bill also moves prosecution decisions on sexual assault and harassment outside of the chain of command to each military branch’s office of the chief prosecutor. The new legislation is expected to be brought to the House floor in November 2020 (100+ House Members Introduce Bipartisan I Am Vanessa Guillén Act to Transform Military’s Response to Sexual Violence and Missing Servicemembers 2020).
Women who served in the military are expressing solidarity and increasing awareness of military sexual trauma by taking a picture of their combat boots decorated with flowers or other items and posting to social media tagged with #WeHonorVanessa. The header image of this blog is a picture of my boots and an arrangement that I put together to show support to my sisters and brothers who’ve experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’ve also included other examples.
I know that this topic can be very sensitive to those who have had firsthand experience and those who know someone who experienced sexual harassment and sexual assault in or out of the military. So, what I’m asking is for us to show our support and display our shoes. A pair of running shoes or hiking boots. In doing this, maybe, just maybe, someone that we know will have the courage to seek help when needed and begin to heal from their experience.
- The Criminal Justice System: Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
- 100+ House Members Introduce Bipartisan I Am Vanessa Guillén Act to Transform Military’s Response to Sexual Violence and Missing Servicemembers. (2020, September 17). Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://raskin.house.gov/media/press-releases/100-house-members-introduce-bipartisan-i-am-vanessa-guill-n-act-transform