“This is a day that should have taken place many years ago,” Lucy Del Gaudio said at a rally for Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén on July 21, in Washington, D.C. “Our Black and brown sisters, we have been struggling. We’ve been fighting. We’ve been invisible. They continually shut us down in the military when we say we’re harassed. They continually shut us down when we say we’re assaulted. And that day will not happen anymore.”
Del Guadio is one of the Latina veterans who joined a grassroots coalition of women veterans and servicewomen to stand in solidarity for Guillén’s family. Guillén’s body was found along the Leon River in Texas on June 30, two months after she was reported missing from the nearby army base in Fort Hood. She was last seen on April 22.
Guillén told her family that she was being sexually harassed by a sergeant but didn’t identify the person, according to NBC Latino. Her disappearance and death provoked other veterans to come forward with their experiences of sexual assault and harassment in the military using the #iamvanessaGuillén hashtag on social media.
Pam Campos-Palma, who served in the U.S. Air Force, told Luz Collective in a recent phone interview that 20 women veteran advocates jumped on a Zoom call in early July to figure out what to do in support of the Guillén family. “I think for some of us when we saw the Guillén family, especially the mother, it reminded us of our own stories of our families immigrating here and then joining the military, and the crushing reality that you can love your country and you can want to serve it with honor, but there’s still a system in place that doesn’t allow us to do that, because those that are supposed to protect us don’t,” Campos-Palma, a daughter of Honduran and Guatemalan immigrants, said.
Learning about Guillén’s background hit close to home for Tristeza Ordex, a retired Marine Corps Staff Sergeant and another member of the grassroots coalition. “When I say ‘Yo soy Vanessa Guillén,’ for me it’s a reality,” Ordex, also a daughter of an immigrant, said in a recent phone interview with Luz Collective.
Two Latina veterans wrote the open letter addressed to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army, Senate and House Leaders, and Armed Services Committee Chairmans that seeks justice for Guillén through the demands of her family. Those demands require Congress to hold the military accountable by conducting an independent investigation, to immediately relieve and replace Guillén’s entire chain of command and to shut down Fort Hood.
The family also requests that no one enlist in the military until they receive justice for their daughter’s death. No justice, no enlistment. “The military doesn’t deserve our bodies, our health, our service if it’s not going to protect us,” Campos-Palma said. The letter was released on the 4th of July and has garnered over 4,000 signatures in over 21 countries and territories.
Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy announced on July 10, that he has called for an independent review with a panel of four citizens to investigate the “climate and culture” at Fort Hood and the surrounding military community. The Army will hire the four consultants to review historical data, reports, and conduct interviews with military and community members.
Ordex’s personal opinion with this update is that this is like police policing themselves. “That’s why there needs to be an independent investigation, independent of the army and the military,” Ordex said. “There has to be someone else that comes in, and that’s why this congressional investigation is getting pushed.”
The final copy of the open letter was handed to U.S. Representative Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot, in front of the Capitol. Sherrill attended the press conference on July 21, with fellow Representatives Jackie Speier, Sylvia Garcia, Julia Brownley and Elaine Luria to call for justice for Guillén by demanding an overhaul on how the military handles sexual harassment and missing persons investigations.
The Guillén family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, is introducing the #IAmVanessaGuillén bill on July 30, in Washington, D.C. The bill would change the current system and allow service members to file sexual harassment and assault claims to a third party agency instead of their line of command.
Campos-Palma said the most critical thing people can do to bring justice for Guillén is to contact members of Congress. “We need to see the military as something that is ours,” Campos-Palma said. “We need to understand that this is our responsibility…I would demand that everyone get involved, get in the fight because right now, we have a dangerous Commander-in-Chief. We have a Congress that has abdicated their role, and nothing will change if the people of the U.S. do not demand it.”
Campos-Palma noted that it was not long ago when President Trump used the National Guard to clear out the demonstrators who were protesting in response to the death of George Floyd for a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church. The moment adds to the growing list of things the President had done or said against people of color and the Latinx community.
It’s significant to Campos-Palma that the Latinx community is deeply enraged about what happened to Guillén. “In so many ways, our community is really in danger,” Campos-Palma said. She’s referring to Trump’s history that includes calling Mexicans “rapists and criminals,” separating families at the U.S./Mexico border and denying undocumented immigrants a federal stimulus check during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My mother encouraged me to enlist,”Campos-Palma said.“She often says that she gave this country the most precious thing to her and even doing that doesn’t earn us the kind of respect and full humanity that this country continues to resist when it comes to the Latino community.”
Campos-Palma thinks it’s deeply important for the Latinx community to make meaning of that and to take their power back in the way that the Guillén family has said. “That it doesn’t matter if I’m a working class Latina, I demand accountability and respect in this country,” Campos-Palma said.
In the few weeks since that zoom meeting, Campos-Palma thinks this grassroots group has already reframed the debate in a way that was long needed. “We’re not going to keep showing you that we’re bleeding,” Campos-Palma said. “We’re not going to relitigate if this is really a problem or not. We know that it’s a problem. We especially in the community have long known that this is abuse and systemic failure and we need you to do something about it and do something real.”
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