On September 11, 2001 during the 9/11 attacks I remember being in my elementary school watching as the World Trade Center Towers came down. Though I didn’t understand, it was obvious that something awful was happening judging by the terrified look on my teacher’s face. Next thing I know, my sister came to find me while calling my mom to pick us up. We went home only to watch the Twin Towers continue to collapse. I still didn’t comprehend the situation or understand why my sister called my mom to pick us up. From then on, as the years went on, I saw my sister develop a want – almost a need – to serve our country in its military. During her senior year my parents hoped she would let go of this “calling” to pursue a different route, sparing them the pain and uncertainty of military life with their Latina daughter as a servicewoman. What need did she have to serve a country she wasn’t even born in? What need did she have to potentially go to war or put herself in harm’s way?
I still remember the day she left for basic training: it was September 7, 2008, a few days before the 9/11 attacks that had occurred seven years earlier. How ironic, huh? I remember I stayed in our shared bedroom to avoid watching her leave. Over the next six and a half weeks she trained in San Antonio, Texas. Once it was time for her graduation, my family and I drove down to see her. The sadness had faded into our family being just so damn proud of her. She had done it! My sister had finished basic training and in our family, individual wins are celebrated as a win for everyone especially for her as a Latina. I remember throughout the joy noticing that she was different and detached. But there was no way to understand what her experience had been like.
For the next few years that feeling remained. The closest person I had grown up with was now emotionally distant. It wasn’t until years later that she would be more open with me about her experiences in the military. The training experiences, the closeness some of her male counterparts felt they could have with her, and the general trauma of five deployments to Afghanistan. I’ll be honest, I’ll never understand how she served for so long.
As the news of Vanessa Guillen’s disappearance and murder came to light last year, it broke my spirit. Vanessa was a young Latina who had joined the military to serve her country and the system she was supposed to be protected by completely failed her. Vanessa Guillen was a young, beautiful, and thriving Latina young woman in the prime of her life who ended up dead. Not in Afghanistan fighting a war against terrorists, but at home in the same city where her base was located. A base that has received multiple complaints and is now notorious for sexual assault allegations.
After Vanessa’s tragic death we’ve seen more servicewomen come forward with their own stories. This includes Dalina, a member of the US Marine Corps. On a TikTok, Dalina goes on to share how her perpetrator would remain in the service despite an admission of guilt. While the Marine Corps has responded and said that even though Dalina has described her experience as sexual assault, the issue was “misconduct of a sexual nature” and they are investigating the video.
That statement particularly affected me because once I finally got the courage to ask my sister if she had ever been through anything like Vanessa Guillen or any of the other woman who came forward with their experiences of sexual assault, she downplayed her experiences because they had been normalized by the military. She quickly recognized her downplaying of it, but at this point she recognized her own experiences were out of line.
I’ve seen the internet use the slogan “Protect Our Servicewomen” and when I asked her if that’s something we should be saying, she quickly said no. My sister instead recommended to say: “Advocate for our Servicewomen”. To promote advocacy instead of protection means to stand with them, fight with them, be their voice when they don’t have one, and amplify their calls to action.
My sister has always done things her way and will continue to serve others in whatever capacity she’s in. Service before self is an Air Force value but one that she’s lived by as a personal mantra even before joining the service. I imagine her moral compass always leads her to the situation where she can help the most, support the most, and love the most.
Now if only the country and the systems that our servicewomen are signing up for can also serve them in the same capacity when they sign up to protect our freedoms. For now, it’s on us to keep them accountable. Yes, sharing a graphic of Vanessa Guillen to honor her memory is meaningful, but having deeper conversations about holding those in positions of leadership accountable on how they manage mistreatment against our servicewomen will do more for them. It will also truly honor Vanessa, Latinas, and the countless other victims of sexual assault, including men and women, who suffer at the hands of inaction even as they serve our country.
Originally published on Feb 26th 2021
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