Content Warning: Story contains content involving sexual violence and assault
On June 30, 2020, entombed in concrete and scattered under the banks of a small river near Fort Hood, Texas, Spc. Vanessa Guillen was finally found after a two-month search.
Months before her death and disappearance, Guillen told her family she had been sexually harassed by a superior at her post. Her mother had urged her to report, but for fear of reprisal, Guillen declined to do so. She was later murdered—bludgeoned to death in her own place of work with a hammer by a supervisor.
Guillen’s murder was said to be shocking, horrifying, and beyond comprehension by Fort Hood command leadership and much of Congress. For those congresspeople, these “shocking” reports should not be news. It’s long been reported that nearly one-third of all female servicemembers have reported facing sexual harassment, 25% of women have been diagnosed with Military Sexual Trauma in relation to sexual harassment and assault while serving, and that for at least three decades, the number one reason women across the entirety of the Department of Defense give for not reporting a case of sexual harassment or assault is command reprisal or retaliation.
The Army and the rest of the DOD have made exceptional strides within the ranks over the years to prevent members from facing sexual harassment or assault. The DOD has implemented required annual prevention and response training and set up focus groups, and service members have been encouraged to participate in the conversation on prevention and response more than at any time in American military history.
The results of these conversations show that there is far more to be desired among its members, regardless of DOD initiatives. Among the lower ranks—where personnel eat, live, and sleep within the same facilities as each other day in and day out—the attitudes toward sexual harassment become less grave or noticed by others eager to turn a blind eye to disruptions of any kind that would make military life even harder. Worst yet are the attitudes taken toward the victims.
The mandated annual Pentagon report by the Office of People Analytics explains how power dynamics in the military play a significant role in how safe a servicemember feels in their units. Lower-level leaders often fail to take the appropriate action, if they act at all, when addressing concerns that junior enlisted service members bring to their commands. According to the focus groups in the reports, junior officers and mid-ranking staff-noncommissioned officers will often play down the seriousness of harassment, equating it to “good-natured” fun.
Groups have also insisted that raising concerns about sexual misconduct when there is none is the same as a female service member attempting to ruin another’s career out of spite or vengefulness for poor performance. The blame is often shifted back on the accuser, with perpetrators of assault or harassment claiming it is the victim playing the role of manipulative abuser.
As retaliation is a very real threat from leaders at risk of losing their careers, the DOD still has published mandates requiring the military branches to protect victims. Maj. Katherine Headley, the director of public affairs for the Iowa National Guard, said there are several protective policies in place.
“There is a reprisal mitigation policy that is in place: when a soldier files a complaint of discrimination or harassment, a Retaliation Reprisal Plan is initiated by the commander to protect the soldier and any witnesses to the complaint,” Headley said. “There is also a discussion on retaliation protections during annual [equal opportunity] training.”
The Retaliation Reprisal Plan may include protections against responses from a superior such as extra work, threats, and unusual/previously unassigned duties.
“A soldier can also be assisted in obtaining a Military Protective Order and a command can determine if the reporting soldier desires to be transferred to another unit or the reported offender can be moved to another unit,” Headley said.
These programs only work, however, if the command is made aware of sexual harassment in the first place, and then subsequent threats of reprisal. This, the OPA report indicates, is the largest hurdle. Servicemembers complain largely that junior leaders encouraged a culture of allowing sexual harassment, and in turn discouraged taking sexual harassment complaints seriously.
Kendy Hakeman, the Military Sexual Trauma coordinator with the Iowa Veterans Affairs Central Iowa Health Care System, explains how toxic work environments, and the commanders’ blind eyes within them, have devastated survivors of MST post-military service.
“There are situations where people are harassed on a daily basis, and not only are they unaware if the situation will turn into something physical, but you just can’t go in and do your normal job,” Hakeman said.
Survivors express threats of coercion, a concern mirrored by the OPA’s report, and even violent repercussions for refusal to consent to sexual harassment and activity within small-units.
“Every day they know they’re going to go to work and meet people that expose them to pornography … or will say awful, disgusting things to them every day and make jokes around them,” Hakeman said. “It’s not okay. Work is supposed to be a safe place for people.”
Coupled with the scarce, non-concrete evidence that comes from reported cases, this misogynistic narrative has become exceedingly commonplace. It is also one tolerated, and now feared, by male servicemembers, which further drives leaders to take harassment reports with a grain of salt.
In the case of Guillen, this culture was reportedly the exact reason she did not come forward with sexual harassment complaints against her supervisor. In the weeks prior to her disappearance, Guillen had expressed to her mother that remaining quiet would be safer than potentially invoking her command’s wrath.
In the same time frame as her murder, the DOD reported a 3% increase in annual sexual assault reporting. Considering that the military allows servicemembers to make restricted reports, or reports that allow the victim medical and command aid but do not initiate a criminal investigation, it is not known whether the amount of crime increased as well.
For those who have faced MST or harassment while in the service, Hakeman adamantly stressed a message of hope for survivors.
“Having people know this is important,” Hakeman said. “Yes, it is hard work, but simply reaching out and asking for help is such a better thing to do than think we cannot help. Yes, if people engage, there is success [in recovery.]”
“Yes, it is hard work, but simply reaching out and asking for help is such a better thing to do thank think we cannot help.”Kendy Hakeman, Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator for Iowa Veterans Affairs Centeral Iowa Health Care System
Despite congressional inquiries, increased training, and revisions to existing policy, the OPA estimates that until junior leaders are held accountable for encouraging cultures of sexual harassment to exist, sexual harassment and assault rates will likely continue to remain excruciatingly high.