On April 22, 2020, Spec. Aaron Robinson fatally bludgeoned Guillén with a hammer at the Texas installation, investigators said. He then dismembered and buried her remains with the help of a girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar. The remains were discovered June 30, when investigators were zeroing in on Robinson as a suspect. He later shot himself when police tried to apprehend him in the neighboring town of Killeen. A federal grand jury indicted Aguilar on 11 charges, including conspiracy to tamper with documents or proceedings and three counts of accessory after the fact.
The Defense Department said in a statement Tuesday that “as a matter of policy the Department does not comment on pending litigation.”
Guillén’s death ignited a slew of disciplinary actions and waves of protests calling for change in how the military handles claims of sexual assault. More than 20 soldiers, including a general and other officers, were punished, and some were suspended.
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The lawsuit comes on the heels of the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that said the Feres doctrine, which bars military service members injured while active duty from suing the federal government, does not cover sexual assault.
That court got it right, Natalie Khawam, the attorney for the Guillén family who filed last week’s lawsuit, told The Washington Post.
“The Department of Defense has wrongfully applied Feres for years,” she said. “Any victim that has experienced sexual assault can now proceed with a case.”
In a statement attached to the lawsuit, Guillén’s sister Mayra Guillén said she started noticing differences in her younger sister’s behavior in January 2020.
Guillén was less cheerful, more forlorn than her usual lively self, and she later confided to their mother about the sexual harassment and intimidation she said she was experiencing from higher-ups.
Mayra Guillén said her younger sister pleaded with their mother to not intervene because Guillén was fearful of retaliation for speaking out about the harassment, according to the court document.
Among the allegations in Mayra Guillén’s statement was that her sister’s superior had solicited her for sex in September 2019. Another soldier reported Guillén’s alleged harassment, leading to the retaliation she feared and prompting her suicidal ideation.
“The ARMY must be held accountable for their wrongdoings, the way they handled their investigations early on, the way that Vanessa was treated, the nightmare she had to endure while serving and only trying to serve her country and her family,” Mayra Guillén wrote. “Vanessa did not deserve to be sexually assaulted, to be murdered, to be cut up into pieces, to be burned, to be buried into cement.”
A 2021 Army report, and a complementary civilian review in December 2020, found a permissive environment for sexual assault and harassment throughout the installation and within Guillén’s unit, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
For nearly a year, Army officials have said they had no evidence that Guillén faced sexual harassment, often denying the family’s specific allegations that Robinson had harassed her and refusing to address whether there were other potential abusers.
The report described two incidents in 2019 that disturbed Guillén, who didn’t officially report them because she feared retaliation. In one incident, a supervisor who was consistently hostile toward her made sexual remarks to her in Spanish.
It dismayed her so much, the report found, that another supervisor asked what was bothering her. She told the supervisor about the harassment and recounted it for other soldiers, some of whom then reported it to unit leadership, which did not address the problem.
The soldier who harassed her was not Robinson, but he did sexually harass another woman, investigators concluded.
Guillén’s death and the attention it brought helped transform the way the Army considers and looks for missing soldiers. She was declared absent without leave, or AWOL, until the day her remains were discovered despite it being clear that her disappearance was not voluntary, the report said. The designation was a matter of policy and didn’t affect the search effort, which the Army concluded was conducted well. The Army’s failure to detain Robinson helped him escape confinement and take his own life, and Guillén’s sister criticized its handling of the case.
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The Army has since changed the policy to bring more urgency to finding soldiers and declaring them missing rather than absent, the report said, an attempt to remove the ambiguity of the status and the stigma of the AWOL label, which often implies that a soldier was unprofessional for not showing up to work.
The lawsuit, Khawam said, aims to help Guillén’s family deal with the pain of their loss, though the anguish that’s followed will never bring back what they want most — Guillén.
The Defense Department has six months to make a decision on the claim, she said.
“DOD never had that accountability,” she said of the recent court ruling and the lawsuit. “I believe the accountability we’re going to see is a lot of progression of law being put in place but also enforced.”