WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is set to greenlight major reforms to the military justice systems, including some recently spurred on by the 2020 murder of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén.
The family of Vanessa Guillen, its attorney, and several lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday rallying in support of the changes.
The proposed legislation, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would allow independent trained military prosecutors to handle cases of sexual assault, murder and other major crimes instead of the military’s chain of command, who often have no legal training.
The reforms are nestled within an annual defense spending bill which the Senate is expected to pass this week, according to U.S Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has championed the effort.
“The National Defense Act is the opportunity for us to change this law — for once and for all to make sure the Vanessa Guilléns of this world have a chance to be heard, to have justice and to make sure that their voices are not drowned out, are not brushed under the rug, are not silenced,” Gillibrand said to a crowd at Thursday’s rally.
Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, had been pushing for the reforms since 2013 along with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. However, following Vanessa Guillen’s 2020 death, more lawmakers have joined in support.
Guillen was serving at Fort Hood when she vanished for months before search crews found her body. Her family at the time claimed Guillen had been sexually harassed by a fellow servicemember. The army, however, initially denied those claims but later released a report acknowledging that Guillen did report two instances where she was sexually harassed but her report was never escalated up the chain of command.
“It is absolutely tragic that it took Vanessa’s murder and the incredible loss that her family has had to endure to bring us to this moment, but she brought us to this moment,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, said during Thursday’s rally. “We have never been closer to reforming the military in a way that respects and upholds the dignity of our service members than we are today.”
Part of the amendments being promoted Thursday would allow victims and their families to file claims with the U.S. military to receive financial compensation if the military fails to prevent a sex-offense by a service-member or Department of Defense employee that results in a fellow servicemember being injured or dying.
“As soon as they start seeing how many people are held accountable and how much it’s costing them, then something will be done, there will be accountability, they won’t just move them from base to base thinking it’s going to be a forgotten story,” Mayra Guillén, Vanessa Guillén’s sister, said. “My sister hasn’t been a forgotten story and won’t be a forgotten story, I can assure you that.”
For more than 70 years, The Feres Doctrine has prevented active-duty service members from suing the military.
Written by Rosemond Crown