When Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s remains were found buried along the Leon River in Texas on June 30, 2020, no one knew just how much of an impact she would have on the military and the issues with sexual assault and sexual harassment among its ranks.
On Nov. 17, Netflix documentary “I Am Vanessa Guillen” premiered about the life, death and legacy of the soldier, who went missing in April 2020.
“It was important to have a documentary to share with the world,” Guillen family attorney Natalie Khawam told Military Times.
Guillen’s sisters, Mayra and Lupe, became incredibly vocal when she originally went missing, claiming that she had reported sexual harassment in her chain of command at Fort Hood, Texas, which went unaddressed. She was murdered on April 22, 2020. The main suspect in her death, fellow soldier Aaron David Robinson, died by suicide July 1, 2020.
It was confirmed that Guillen was sexually harassed, but not by Robinson, according to an independent Army report released Dec. 8, 2020. He had, however, also been accused of sexual harassment by another soldier.
The documentary sets the stage by showing the type of person Guillen was in life — kind, dedicated and driven to succeeed not just in her Army career, but in what she hoped to do after. Though her legacy now is much different than the one that she and her family dreamt, it is no less impactful.
The investigations of mishandling sexual assault and sexual harassment at Fort Hood, Texas, led to a much greater conversation about reporting abuse within the U.S. military a whole.
In speaking with Mayra Guillen, it becomes apparent that in her quest to get answers about how something like this could happen to any soldier, let alone her sister, spawned a push for change that made a lasting political impact that will be felt among service members for generations to come.
“The issue of sexual assault and harassment in the military was pretty much swept under the rug, not talked about... silenced,” she told Military Times.
Several politicians fought alongside the sisters for a bill to address sexual misconduct outside the chain of command, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, who are featured in the documentary.
“This was not one of those cases the military could sweep under the rug,” Speier said.
Throughout the documentary, Mayra Guillen and Khawam urge lawmakers to pass the “I Am Vanessa Guillen Act,” some of which President Joe Biden signed into law as part of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act — the annual defense spending bill.
The act’s provisions included removing the authority to prosecute sexual offenses from military commanders, meaning decisions to prosecute rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, manslaughter and murder are now handled outside the chain of command. Instead, independent military prosecutors will now handle these cases.
Biden also signed an executive order establishing sexual harassment as an offense within the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“[Vanessa’s death] shed light on a very big problem that a lot of people will be talking about, and the reforms that are now in place, I hope they’re for the better of everyone,” Mayra Guillen said.
“I Am Vanessa Guillen” directed and produced by Christy Wegener, is now available on Netflix.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.