In the Army, I supplied soldiers with equipment.
Like Army Pvt. 1st Class Vanessa Guillen.
I worked in a warehouse filled with helicopter parts.
Vanessa worked with weaponry.
I can picture how it looked and how it smelled, and I can imagine Vanessa, with her golden smile, in a similar place.
As I watched her story progress, from missing, to harassed, to dead, I felt, as a Latina woman, what her dread must have been in that place. I felt my own dread as each bit of news trickled out, too late to be of help to a sister service member.
I had just arrived in a unit as my new co-workers returned from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. To help with their return, I reported for temporary duty in the unit supply room. Usually, it was just the supply sergeant and me. I sat at my assigned desk and went about my business. At the time, I was a tomboy who considered myself “one of the guys”—someone who went with the flow.
But the supply sergeant went out of his way to touch my hands. Or my back. Or my shoulders. This made me uncomfortable, and I asked him to stop. Each time, he laughed. Soon enough, he’d touch me again. I had been trained to report such behavior to my equal opportunity officer. But women in the military know to pick their battles—that complaints are often ignored or that they will move you from the “one of the guys” category into the “troublemaker” category.
This felt like something that would progress to more. It scared me. So, I called the equal opportunity officer, explained the situation, and asked to return to my regular job at the warehouse.
On my first day back at the warehouse, I felt relieved to have escaped unscathed. At the time, I was 23 and a private—E2 or E3—which meant pretty much everyone in the unit outranked me.
Much like Vanessa.
A soldier told me my sergeant was waiting to see me in one of the trailers. I didn’t think anything of it because, as groups from my unit continued to return from Iraq, we kept a lot of our supplies in the trailers of the five-ton trucks parked on the side of the warehouse.
When I arrived at the trailer, I found several noncommissioned officers, including the equal opportunity officer and the supply sergeant, inside.
I felt cornered. They questioned me, as a group, about my complaint. They told me I was ruining a good man’s career over a misunderstanding.
I, apparently, misunderstood when I asked him not to touch me and he continued to do so. I, apparently, misunderstood that I had jurisdiction over my own body. For an eternity, they questioned me, telling me to suck it up, telling me not to believe my own experience. Ultimately, I agreed to drop the complaint.
Soon, rumors started about me in the barracks. I moved off post, and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the barracks. That was the first time I experienced the good ol’ boy network, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Guillen’s death has awakened a wave of emotions inside me, ranging from immense sadness to grief to anger to rage, decades after I left the Army. Online, I see women veterans driven to tell their stories, to call out for Vanessa, to recognize that this must stop—all of it.
My story is from nearly 30 years ago. But, as shown in such horrific detail in Vanessa’s case, we know military women continue to face sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking.
Online, I see that side of the story, as well—the old-school mentality that women somehow ask for bad behavior simply by serving their country.
“You guys are kidding, right?” retired Air Force Col. Betsy Schoeller wrote on Facebook in response to a comment about Vanessa. “Sexual harassment is the price of admission for women into the good ole boy club. If you’re going to cry like a snowflake about it, you’re gonna pay the price.”
I emailed her for a comment, but she didn’t respond. She has since apologized for her comment, saying, “I was giving voice to the messaging that women hear in the culture of sexual harassment: The message we receive from the culture is not only will you suffer from sexual harassment, if you squawk about it, you will suffer even more.”
In a statement, Schoeller said women face sexual harassment on their own because of a culture that doesn’t support women who file a complaint.
I also read a statement from Vanessa’s family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam:
“The Army called me to confirm that the bones, hair, and other remains found belong to Vanessa.”
“Belong to Vanessa.”
Her body. Our bodies.
As each detail emerged, each more gruesome than the previous, I cried. How does a soldier go missing for so long? How could she be killed on base—burned and dismembered and no one noticed?
How could Vanessa have experienced something so horrible and not one person in her unit or chain of command stepped in to help her before it was too late?
I came away feeling that the Army has failed Vanessa.
She’s not the first.
The military has failed many other women and men, including myself on more than one occasion.
“Enough, already!” I yelled, alone in my apartment because of the pandemic, after yet another headline.
I knew I could no longer be silent. I felt a renewed sense of strength and purpose.
I started seeing hashtags for Vanessa, including #JusticeForVanessaGuillen, but the #IAmVanessaGuillen hashtag demanded my attention. In an unprecedented move, veterans and some active duty service members began to share their personal stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
What is it about Vanessa’s story that has become a rallying cry not only for the Latino community who’ve been peacefully protesting, but also for the military and veteran communities that historically have been wary about sharing details of military sexual trauma, or MST as it is more commonly called?
I believe Vanessa, with so much life left to live, represents so many of us. She feared retaliation and didn’t report it, and it cost her life. But she knew reporting it could cost her reputation, her friends, her opportunity for promotion, and her ability to be “one of the guys.”
Vanessa Guillen is you, she is me, and she is every one of us who has ever served our nation and endured sexual harassment.
Now that Vanessa’s voice is silenced, we are her voice.