Vanessa Guillen's Killing Gives Way to Claims of Sexual Harassment, Abuse in the Military, and Hope for Change

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The disappearance of 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillén began badly and ended horribly worse.

The private first class vanished on an April Sunday, in broad daylight, from Fort Hood, the third-largest Army base in the country. Her family would later say she spoke of being sexually harassed at the Texas installation, and of being afraid to report it. 

The vanishing of a young woman from a massive military base went largely unreported in the national media until her relatives, and their attorney, began holding press conferences, accusing Army officials of dragging their feet and deliberately misleading them. National marches and demonstrations followed. Politicians, celebrities and women's advocates took up her cause. They demanded she be found.

Two months later, Guillén's body was finally found, in pieces, buried in concrete some 20 miles from Fort Hood. She had been beaten to death inside an armory on base, authorities said, and her blood was on the walls and then washed off, said the family's attorney at a news briefing.

There are now at least five separate investigations into what happened to Guillén.

U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy now says Fort Hood has the highest number of sexual assaults and harassment in the entire branch of the military. He apologized to Guillén's family.

It is an historic admission. For as long as women have been legally admitted into the military, in the 1940s, discrimination, harassment and assault have haunted the armed services without relief. 

Military authorities have long said they were trying to address those issues, but the number of cases, the majority of which are never reported, have continually risen, according to advocates of service members.

The horrific details of Guillén's disappearance and slaying have opened a floodgate, and a torrent of pain and anger flows through it. By the thousands, women have taken to social media to post photos of themselves, in uniform and using their full names, to say they had been harassed, abused, attacked and ignored when reporting what happened to them.

Others said they never reported it, or said anything about it, until now. They say the military's unspoken code is as loud as the bugle call of reveille: suck it up, play hurt, and don't say a word because it will only come back to haunt you.

Under the hashtag of #IAmVanessaGuillen, a movement has been born. A bill of the same name is pending before Congress. It seeks to establish an independent board to review claims of abuse and harassment, instead of the alleged victim's chain of command. 

It is not a new piece of legislation.

“The Pentagon deliberately misled Congress to stop fundamental reform seven years ago. Ever since then it’s been empty promises and inaction, as our military loses its best and brightest and more families suffer unnecessarily," retired Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor in the U.S. Air Force, said in September when the bill was officially introduced in Congress.

"The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act is long overdue," said Christensen, who now heads Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit organization that serves veterans and service members.

There is cautious hope that this time may be different -- that this time, all the publicity and investigations and press conferences might finally mean the ugly secrets of harassment and abuse are seen in blinding, public light.

Inside Edition Digital spoke with three women who have raised their voices hoping their stories will help. They were all young women when they entered service. They dreamed of traveling and defending their country. They wanted to make a difference.

Instead, they say, they encountered toxic environments that shook them to their cores.

Their voices carry troubling statistics.

Female service members in combat zones face a greater risk of being raped by a male colleague than being killed by enemy fire, according to Department of Defense congressional testimony.

Sexual assaults against women in the military increased by 50% from 2016 to 2018, the latest DOD figures show. 

Women make up 20% of the military, but comprise 63% of its known assault victims, according to Defense Department statistics.

More than 75% of women who said they were sexually assaulted did not report it, saying they feared retaliation and that nothing would be done, according to statistics compiled by Protect Our Defenders.

Navy Veteran Sadie Strong-Wolcott Is Silent No More

Sadie Strong-Wolcott joined the U.S. Navy in 2012, fresh out of high school. Her family was very supportive, she said.

"I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself," she told Inside Edition Digital. "I had gotten into college. It wasn't like that was my only option. I was the captain of my cheerleading team. I was very girly, but wanted to travel. I wanted to protect the country and I just wanted to say 'I did that.'"

She trained in Pensacola, Florida and Washington State before being deployed to the Middle East. Only 19, and in a foreign country, she said she trusted her military colleagues.

"All through boot camp and everything, we were told 'This is your family. These people have your back. You have their back. They would die for you,''' she said. 

So on their first "liberty" outing, when service members are given permission to go off base for recreation, Strong-Wolcott said she didn't hesitate to go for dinner with a group of colleagues. Later, they went to a bar.

 "I only remember having one drink," she said. She remembers the bright colors. "It was green and purple," she said. The rest of the night was a blur of disjointed images.

She woke up the next morning in her bunk.  

"My cellphone, it had pictures of these people basically having sex with my body while I wasn't awake. I just remember feeling so hurt and confused and it just didn't ... I don't know what happened."

Distraught, she said she went to a male colleague she considered a friend, and showed him the images on her phone. She asked, "What is this? Why was this OK? Why did this happen?''

He was nonplussed. "What are you talking about? Don't be stupid. You wanted to drink with us. That's what you asked for. Don't turn this into something it's not," she recounted him saying.

The person she thought was her friend told others that she was upset, she said. The next week, she was transferred to a different country, alone. There, she said, she was drugged and raped again. This time, she told someone, a woman in her chain of command.

An investigation followed. A medical exam was conducted, and a rape kit was administered. The man who attacked her was arrested, and she became a pariah, she said.

Strong-Walcott was shipped back to the States, and assigned to duty in Seattle. Eventually, the rest of her squadron was also sent there, she said.

"People were told not to talk to me. People who I thought I was friends with weren't communicating and if they were, it wasn't nice," she said. "I remember walking on base and people would throw Gatorade bottles while I was walking."

And they said things.

"Oh, there's the slut," she said rang out when she walked past. "Or, 'she's easy,' or 'there's the career ruiner.' Just stupid stuff. I just remember nothing was nice."

After more than a year, the case finally went to trial in the U.S. The evidence from her rape kit and medical examination in the Middle East had been lost, and was not entered into evidence, she said.

The man she said raped her was acquitted. And in a scenario that many alleged female victims have reported, he later was promoted. 

Strong-Wolcott, however, was sent to a mental health facility for psychiatric counseling. She was there for two months, isolated and away from her family during her 21st birthday and Thanksgiving.

She learned to survive. "It was two solid two years of life taken from me and not given back. I'm not that person anymore," she said. On social media, "I deleted everything prior to my life before that."

She kept one image. It's her 19-year-old self, grinning big after enlisting. She posted it on social media, along with "#IAmVanessaGuillen," as a memorial to a part of herself that no longer exists. That young woman is dead, she said.

Sadie Strong-Wolcott posted this image of herself after enlisting.
Sadie Strong-Wolcott

She retired from the military. For a time, she moved in with her family and focused on rebuilding her life. She took up archery and shooting, which she excels at, and joined veterans adaptive sports groups for the wounded and traumatized, and has participated in the military's Warrior Games.

She also joined the Invictus Games, where she met her fiancé, with whom she has a 3-year-old son named Ezra. "My son is everything to me. He is great. I couldn't ask for anything more than him," she said.

Now 27, she is a fulltime mom. She was in Texas when the Vanessa Guillén story broke, she said. She added her name and story to the growing list of women who came forward in Guillen's name.

"I truly hope that with everyone that's come out, with myself and the hundreds of other women who have come out and shared their story, I hope that this creates a change," she said.

The I Am Vanessa Guillen Bill is not the first time a congressional drive has sought an outside group to review harassment and abuse complaints. Several several measures over the past eight years have failed.

"If the momentum can stay moving and people stay on the topic," the latest effort might succeed, she said. If "we are all very vocal... it might actually make a difference."

Navy Veteran Ruth Moore Uses Her Own Trauma to Help Others  

Ruth Moore joined the Navy straight out of high school. She was 17. Her upbringing in the outback of Maine was isolation in the form of geographical remoteness. She was not well-versed in the ways of city life or being part of a massive organization.

"I joined the military to escape from a rural community, and to make something of myself. I had a career set out. I wanted to see the world and I wanted to support our country," she said.

Her first job, after boot camp, was as a weather forecaster. 

"The misogyny and the hazing started pretty much when I graduated boot camp and I went to my first duty station in Illinois," Moore said. It was 1986. Then she was sent to an island posting in Europe.

"Honestly, looking back from my 51-year-old self, I felt pretty much like a piece of meat in a butcher shop. I was the new kid on the island. I was the new lay. I was the new main squeeze," she said.

She declined all offers from male colleagues to go drinking and to restaurants, she said. She was a loner who preferred hiking and horseback riding in her down time. If she wasn't at work, she was in her quarters, studying. 

Ruth Moore in her dress uniform.
Ruth Moore

Then, she says, came an invitation from a superior officer.

“My supervisor asked me to meet him at the club. I wanted to grab a quick bowl of soup and maybe some crusty Portuguese bread. He said, 'Hey, I want to talk to you about your performance. Why don't you come outside where it's not quite so loud?'"

In Moore's 18-year-old mind, the request seemed to make sense. Techno rock was blaring from the speakers inside the club.

"I went outside and my world changed in an instant."

Her boss shoved her into the bushes, "where nobody could see me and he raped me. And it was probably the most horrific thing I've ever experienced,” she said.

Not knowing what to do, or who would believe her, Moore said she went to the chaplain.

"He basically told me, 'you need to keep your mouth shut and you need to move on and forget about this.'''

What she didn't know, she said, was the chaplain "was good friends with the person who raped me and he had a private conversation with that person rather than making the right reports.

"And a couple days later I was walking out of my barracks to go into my evening work, and I was raped again by the same man," she said. "And he told me I should learn to keep my mouth shut.”

No one helped her, she said. Terrified, she said she didn't tell her family or anyone outside of the island because phone calls were routinely monitored.

She tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills, but was found and revived. She was temporarily placed in the brig and accused of destruction of government property for attempting suicide. She was the government property.

"I was shipped off the island immediately and I was sent to Bethesda, to Maryland, to the hospital. And they gave me a fraudulent diagnosis of a borderline personality disorder, which was common in the 80s," she said.

She refused the antipsychotic drugs they prescribed to her, she said. Eventually, she was given a medical discharge.

She went back to Maine, to her family, only to find they didn't believer her, either, she said.

"I was basically, for lack of better words, slut-shamed. People would ask what were you wearing? What was I doing? Didn't I know better to go out? Good girls don't get raped. And I lived that way for several years."

She left in 1997. With therapy and psychiatric help, she put the pieces of her life back together. She went to the Veterans Affairs administration and filed for PTSD benefits.

"I said I was raped. And at first the VA said, ‘No, you're not. You were never raped. It's all in your mind.’ And I said ‘No, I was raped.’ And in 2003, I actually was able to get partial benefits from the VA."

She received about $400,000 in back benefits. The VA acknowledged it made a “clear and unmistakable error” in denying her benefits for the physical and emotional trauma she endured after being raped.

She returned to school and eventually studied to become a holistic practitioner and therapist.

She has long testified about military rape and sexual harassment before Congress and worked with Veterans Affairs administration. A bill in her name, “The Ruth Moore Act,” allowed veterans to more easily qualify for PTSD benefits.

The measure passed the House, but died in the Senate. Then-President Barack Obama was able to resurrect it by including its provisions in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

“Before the act was initiated, survivors of military sexual trauma had a much higher burden to prove the same disability that someone who had just come off the battlefield was granted automatically," she said.

Moore now works with women like herself, who have lived through sexual assault and are working to heal themselves physically and psychologically. She still bears the burdens of PTSD. Being in crowds and a lot of noise and bright lighting can trigger a phenomenon where her brain just shuts down, she said.

"So I have (this) convenient little code word to my husband or to my colleagues or my friends. I can look at them and say, 'I'm not feeling well right now. I just need to have some quiet time or some downtime.'" 

And they get her out of the situation.

She, too, is closely following the outcry following Guillén's slaying. 

"People have a right to be angry," she said. "They have a right to express themselves and maybe we can make something good come out of her death. And maybe we can protect generations of veterans to come, because it needs to stop.

"I can remember testifying in Congress and seeing the leaders from the different branches, and they were lined up in front of me. And they made promises, 'oh, this is going to stop and we're going to do this.' I testified in 2012," she said. "It's 2020.

"I testified eight years ago."

Army Translator Kayla Williams Joined the Veterans Affairs Administration to Help Trauma Survivors

Kayla Williams had already graduated college and had worked in the private sector before she enlisted in the Army in 2000, in the last month of Bill Clinton's presidency, to work in military intelligence. She was in her 20s, and underwent language training to speak Arabic, partly because her boyfriend at the time was Palestinian and spoke the language.

Then came 9/11, and as an Arab linguist, she knew she would be shipped out. Indeed she was, with the 101st Airborne Division, as a translator.

Kayla Williams.
Kayla Williams

In her five years with the military, she experienced continued sexual harassment, she said. 

She would go on to write two books about her service experience, to work for the Rand Corporation, and to serve in the Veterans Affairs administration under President Barack Obama. But she says the experience of being harassed, and of being treated as less than her male colleagues, has never left her.

“I experienced chronic low-grade sexual harassment basically throughout my military career," she said. "There were also some specific incidents that really rose above that level to a point that I felt I couldn't stay silent.”

The first occurred while she was still in training. "One of my classmates asked if I could bring over his homework " because he had missed a session, she said.

"When I went to his house, his wife was not home. And he asked if I would have sex with him. I said, 'Absolutely not.' He stopped me and said, 'Please, please, will you at least perform oral sex on me?'''

Those were not the words he used. "And I again said, 'Absolutely not. You're married. This is not appropriate.'''

Williams pushed past him and left, she said. She reported it, and the soldier was disciplined for missing study hall, but not for his other actions, Williams said.

"So when I started to encounter more serious incidents, later in my military career, I did not feel any sort of confidence that they would be taken seriously and didn't even bother reporting at that point," she said.

Later, while stationed in Iraq, Williams experienced something more physical, she said.

“I went over for a change of guard, and the man who was there grabbed my hand. And I realized that he had his penis out of his pants and was trying to put my hand on his penis.

"I jerked back in total surprise and expressed that I was not interested. I didn't feel in danger. I was carrying an M4, but I was appalled that someone would behave so unprofessionally, so inappropriately," she said.

She was even more appalled, she said, by the reactions of her colleagues, who were all male, when she recounted the incident.

"The response that I got was, 'Well, why are you going to ruin his career, just because you can't take it?'"

She didn't report it, she said.

"That stung so deeply, and really served to reinforce to me that I wasn't considered equal, and that men would not be held accountable for behaving badly," she said.

She left active duty in 2005 and spent eight years with Rand, researching and reporting on health needs and benefits needed by service members and veterans.

From 2016 to 2018, "I was honored to serve within the Department of Veterans Affairs, running their Center for Women Veterans," where she was able to help traumatized female veterans get easier access to treatment and benefits including the G.I. Bill.

But under the Trump administration, she doubts that women in the military, despite Vanessa Guillén's case, will make greater strides in ending harassment and abuse. Trump did meet with the slain soldier's family in July and told them investigations into her death would not be "swept under the rug."

“When the commander in chief has been credibly accused of sexual assault and expresses no remorse for it, what message does that send to more junior folks?” Williams asked.

Nonetheless, despite what she experienced in the military, and what she has heard from others, Williams was stunned when she heard about Vanessa Guillén.

It wasn't just the horrific details. It was also what happened afterward.

"I witnessed an outpouring of rage and grief from military women and women veterans, unlike any that I've seen before," she said. "Now is the time when more women and men are coming forward than ever before. We are sharing our stories. Some of us again, and many for the first time," she said.

Over the years, the military has consistently said it was working toward changing the way women were treated in its ranks. Through multiple congressional hearings and Defense Department surveys, service leaders have expressed dismay and promised discipline to those who abuse and harass female enlistees.

It's an institution as old as the American Revolution, with a current roster of more than 1.3 million active duty members. Trying to change such an ancient, massive organization is not unlike trying to turn an aircraft carrier on a dime.

But the time has come, say those who have spent years fighting for equality for every person who serves their country.

Williams' heart is lifted by the women, and the men, who have stepped forward in a loud choir demanding "This cannot stand. This is not acceptable. Not one more."

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