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She was sexually harassed then murdered by a fellow soldier. Now Vanessa Guillen’s sister tells their story

Vanessa Guillen was murdered by a fellow soldier at Ford Hood, prompting her family to campaign for justice. A new documentary bearing her name premieres on Netflix, her older sister tells Sheila Flynn that more work remains to be done

Thursday 17 November 2022 15:25 GMT
The family of murdered Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen has filed a $35m lawsuit against the US government
The family of murdered Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen has filed a $35m lawsuit against the US government (KHOU)

The Guillen girls, like most Gen Z siblings, loved to watch Netflix together – usually something sci-fi – and they’d watch almost anywhere: in their shared bedroom, grabbing a bite to eat, you name it.

It never even crossed their minds that, one day, a heartbreaking documentary about the military and murder would stream across the platform and bear the name of the second-oldest sister, Vanessa Guillen.

That’s exactly the reality for the Guillen family of six siblings born to Mexican immigrant parents in Houston, Texas. I Am Vanessa Guillen premieres on Thursday on Netflix, telling the story of the 20-year-old soldier’s murder at Fort Hood and her family’s subsequent fight for justice.

The oldest, Mayra, has already seen the film. The first time she watched it, it was a pre-release cut and she viewed it with a critical, pragmatic eye after participating in the film with her family.

The second time she watched it was at a pre-screening in Houston last weekend. That’s when the reality of the past few years really hit Mayra and the rest of the Guillen clan.

“It was tears nonstop,” Mayra tells The Independent. “I was crying, and my sisters were in tears. It was just very, very emotional ... a rollercoaster of emotions.”

That rollercoaster began just over two and a half years ago, when Vanessa Guillen was a young Army soldier stationed at Fort Hood, in her native Texas. The Guillens are a tight-knit family so when Vanessa stopped answering calls and messages in April 2020, it set off alarm bells that were tragically warranted.

Vanessa’s remains were discovered near the Leon River on June 30, 2020. Her presumed killer, fellow soldier Aaron David Robinson, took his own life in the early hours of 1 July. His girlfriend, the estranged wife of another soldier, was soon indicted on 11 counts relating to Vanessa’s death; her trial is scheduled for January 2023. Fourteen Army leaders were fired or suspended following Vanessa’s death.

Vanessa had complained to her family about being sexually harassed at Fort Hood, and a subsequent Army investigation determined that she’d been victimized on at least two occasions by a supervisor not suspected of her murder. Instead, it was Robinson who fatally bludgeoned Vanessa after she saw a picture of his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, on his phone, Aguilar told investigators. Robinson was afraid he’d get in trouble for violating Army fraternization rules because Aguilar was married to another soldier, she said.

The case raised serious questions about accountability and sexual harassment within the US military. Adding further insult to the revelations about Vanessa’s victimization, the Army also admitted it had lost track of the young soldier’s whereabouts for the majority of a day.

Devastated and angry, the Guillens became unlikely advocates for change and they did so in an astonishingly short period of time.

Supporters of Vanessa Guillen and her family protest on the soldier’s behalf (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Less than two years after Vanessa’s death, President Joe Biden in January 2022 signed an executive order to establish sexual harassment as an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — as called for by the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

The new legislation removes the chain of command from military investigations into sexual offenses; historically, direct commanders were assigned to investigate allegations, meaning they most likely had personal relationships with both accusers and accused. The Guillens believe that situation had deterred Vanessa from reporting harassment to her superiors.

They believe their work on behalf of Vanessa and other victims is not over, but participation in a documentary involved a lot of family discussions, Mayra tells The Independent.

“It was not that simple,” she says. “I really had to let my mom know that this wasn’t going to be focused on the way that my sister was murdered, because that’s something that she did not want to go forward with.”

Instead, Mayra says, she hoped for a film “showing how we went on the Hill and advocated in [Vanessa’s] name and thousands of victims’ names – and she just felt comfortable with the idea that it would show Vanessa’s legacy. So everyone just agreed, and we were able to talk to the people, the team, that [would] follow us and made us feel comfortable. They would not push us ... you wouldn’t even know that they were in the room.”

Vanessa Guillen, 20, went missing from Fort Hood, Texas in April 2020 and her remains were found on 30 June (Mayra Guillen)

Still, the process of participating in the film, while relentlessly campaigning and raising awareness, was draining.

“Sometimes emotions overpower,” Mayra says. “But again, they would pretty much respect when I wasn’t feeling well, or we would reschedule or something like that, even if it was just a follow-up interview. But ... when it was live recording, you have to deal with it and keep going.”

She says her motivation was Vanessa and “the love I have for my sister,” adding that she’s been bolstered, by the lawyer and advocate who has essentially become part of the family – another first-generation immigrant, Natalie Khawam, who’s been with the Guillens from practically the very beginning.

“She wouldn’t ever let me fall back or feel down,” Mayra tells The Independent. “She would always give me the set of talks that I needed and told me that we have, we have to do this. She was really someone that helped me work through all this, in both personal and business matters.”

Mayra and Vanessa Guillen were the oldest of six siblings born to Mexican immigrant parents in Houston (Mayra Guillen)

Outside of legislation, the Guillen family has filed a $35million wrongful death suit against the Army and established the I Am Vanessa Guillen Foundation.

Ms Khawam, who says she first came across problematic military procedures during a pro bono case, describes the foundation as “focused on helping and assisting survivors, victims; having a voice, going onto the Hill; meeting with members of Congress; testifying, lobbying efforts to make sure that all the provisions we need for our military are included in some kind of bill or legislation; and raising awareness and getting pro bono law firms ... to protect and represent survivors.”

Those are wide-ranging and lofty ambitions, but the Guillens and Khawam have already surpassed expectations with their role in the near lightning-speed approval of new laws.

Despite their public platform clamouring for reform, Mayra says her high-level dealings, even with the military, have been encouraging to date.

“I’ve never, not once have I ever, felt like I wasn’t wanted in the room,” she tells The Independent. “On the contrary, it’s been a good experience. I feel welcomed. I feel respected.”

She’s planning to be “in the room” even more; Mayra says she’s planning to run for office herself. A possibility that never would have entered her orbit just two and a half years ago, she says.

Mayra Guillen, right, says her love for her sister Vanessa, left, has helped her fight on her behalf and for other victims; she plans to run for political office (Mayra Guillen)

Before Vanessa’s murder, she was practically “a child, working, going to school,” Mayra says.

“I never actually imagined that we’d be on the Hill,” she says, with the practiced shorthand of a DC insider. “It’s still sometimes unbelievable to me. But I’m like, it’s real.”

Her sister’s cause has completely changed her life.

“In the last few years, I’ve learned so much, and I know a lot more, because it’s something that I plan to keep on doing,” Mayra tells The Independent. “And if I’m doing it as a civilian, why not actually do it as a public official?”

She adds: “I have a desire to help other families ... and I feel like being in office is the best way to do it.”

The encouragement and messages of support from many other families strengthen her resolve, she says and she gets them “on a daily basis.”

“I do like seeing that people recognize the work that we’ve done,” she says. “But I truly wish there were more ways that I can help, and [that’s] the whole reason as to why the foundation was founded. But I really wish that we could gather the resources that we need in order to be able to help the victims.”

She will not say if she’s identified a specific office or party for a potential run.

While a political career could help her secure such resources and support her mission, Mayra hopes projects such as the documentary will continue to educate the public and lawmakers.

Mayra Guillen says she feels the new Netflix documentary conveys a sense of her late sister, such as Vanessa’s love for sports (Mayra Guillen)

The reaction from viewers last weekend was certainly an indication that the film’s hitting the mark.

“Many people in the pre-screening, they were really just in shock, in a sense,” she says. “It made them feel angry and made them feel bad and made them feel all types of emotions. And that’s how I know that the purpose of the film will raise the awareness once again. I just feel like it does. It also lets people know that there’s so much work to be done. There’s not necessarily a happy ending with this.”

Mayra says she wants “people to acknowledge that military sexual assault and traumas and harassment is still a very big issue – not just, because the bill was passed, it means that it’s been solved.”

She points to the fact that it’s taken – and will take – years for the military to revamp and implement proper procedure regarding sexual offenses.

“And we don’t think that’s fair,” Mayra says, reaffirming the importance of “just keeping the pressure ... the public eye on them.”

She also wants people to remember her sister as a person and not just a murdered soldier. She believes I Am Vanessa Guillen achieves that.

“It definitely shows who Vanessa was, in and out ... what a sporty person she was, it shows intimate videos of our bond, as sisters as girlfriends,” Mayra says. “She wasn’t only my sister but she was someone I could hang out with. The bond that we had is the reason as to why I fight for her. We were very close, and it shows how likeable she was ... she was just a very sweet person.”

Attorney Natalie Khawam, who is representing the Guillen family, first became interested in military procedure and justice through pro bono work (Natalie Khawam)

For Khawam, it’s important that film viewers see “the family’s love [and] determination.

“It doesn’t matter what, where you come from, how much money you have,” the lawyer tells The Independent. “I mean, we did this ... I didn’t have an organization or any kind of funding to do this at all. It’s not like you have to be a certain gender or certain race. I mean, I’m an immigrant too. To change history or change the world, anyone can do it – as long as they want.”

Mayra feels Vanessa around her all the time; she’s unsure what she’d make of her face gracing a streaming platform they’d so often enjoyed together.

“I talk to her picture sometimes, and I’m like, ‘Ohhh, you’re on Netflix,’” Mayra laughs. “I wonder what she’d think. It’s crazy. But I truly hope that she’s proud.”

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