WASHINGTON — As the #MeToo movement gained ground, propelled by stories of women in Hollywood, the news media, restaurants and other industries, women in the military have remained in the shadows.
Then came the killing of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, whose remains were discovered last month about 25 miles from Fort Hood in central Texas, the victim, officials said, of a fellow soldier. Her death has attracted the attention of the nation — veterans, active-duty service members and civilians alike.
Women in the military and those who advocate for them say the horrific nature of the crime, perpetrated against the backdrop of a racial equality movement sweeping the country, has galvanized many women to the cause. The persistence of Specialist Guillen’s family also has kept front and center a case that might otherwise have left them in grief-stricken retreat.
“I think generally the American moment we’re in is inspiring collective action in a way that we’ve needed,” said Allison Jaslow, a former Army captain and veteran of the Iraq war who has tried for years to raise awareness of the issues. “Women are tired of how women are still getting deprioritized, and have lost patience.”
She said she saw a direct line from Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed by the police, to Specialist Guillen, who was Latina, to “the women at home struggling to get our society to respond to their needs.”
Specialist Guillen, 20, was last seen on April 22 at Fort Hood. Only on July 2 did the Army reveal that she was killed by another soldier who then tried to dispose of her dismembered remains.
That soldier, Army Specialist Aaron Robinson, killed himself with a pistol as police approached him this month. Authorities arrested his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, after Justice Department officials revealed in court documents that Specialist Robinson told her he killed Specialist Guillen with a hammer and that the couple then tried to dismember and burn her remains.
The revelations sparked immediate and widespread outrage and grief. In Fort Worth, Houston and Austin, Texas, artists created murals in Specialist Guillen’s memory. From South Sioux City, Neb., to Baldwin Park, Calif. to East Los Angeles, several makeshift memorial sites have been set up by community members. On Twitter, the hashtag #JUSTICEFORVANNESSAGUILLEN trended for days.
A group of female veterans created a forum for women affiliated with the military that is calling for a congressional investigation into her death. It quickly gained thousands of members. The actor Rose McGowan, a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, advocated for Specialist Guillen on Twitter. The case has made mainstream podcasts and programs on the right and left, from the crime chronicler Nancy Grace to the feminist podcast Courting Disaster.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said in a statement last week: “We owe it to those who put on the uniform, and to their families, to put an end to sexual harassment and assault in the military, and hold perpetrators accountable.”
It is, women from the military say, their Black Lives Matter moment.
“We have been swept under the rug so often,” said Lucy C. Del Gaudio, who served in the Army between 1990 and 1998, and was assaulted. A friend called her when the case in Fort Hood came to light and said he saw her face in the victim. She is now working to gather female veterans, service members and civilians to push for a deeper investigation into Specialist Guillen’s killing.
“The way the social media worked in 1992, I didn’t have any way to have proof in the pudding,” Ms. Del Gaudio said. “We now have the proof and means.”
It is rare to speak to a female veteran or current service member who has not experienced sexual harassment or worse, from the elite military academies to basic training to the barracks to the highest ranks of service.
In 2019, the Defense Department found, there were 7,825 sexual assault reports involving service members as victims or subjects, a 3 percent increase over 2018. Reports in which survivors confidentially disclosed an assault without starting an official investigation rose by 17 percent increase, to 2,126 reports.
Military culture and its rules make it extremely hard for women to seek and obtain justice in these cases, or for the military to curb the ongoing problem of harassment and assault. Ms. Jaslow said that a culture where “good order and discipline” and hierarchy rule, it is challenging to advocate for accountability. Military women are at once expected to be tough enough to face down harassment, and blamed for entering a male-dominated workplace where they have long fought to be accepted as equals.
“There are reports from Vanessa’s family that she was being harassed, but for some reason she did not feel comfortable making a credible report,” said Representative Elaine Luria, Democrat of Virginia, who spent 20 years in the Navy. “A lot of women are hesitant to make reports and don’t necessarily feel that when others make reports they have gotten justice.”
There have been fights on Capitol Hill over changes to the way these cases are adjudicated. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, have repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would give military prosecutors — rather than commanders — the power to decide which sexual assaults to try in the military.
A new twist in the debate is the inclusion of young, female veterans who attended elite service academies.
Representative Mikie Sherrill, Democrat of New Jersey, and Ms. Luria this month gave emotional testimony during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in support of a measure to create a pilot Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the academies for such incidents. Seven Republicans, many of whom were initially resistant, voted for the amendment to help it pass out of committee.
“I was harassed in the Navy and the academy,” said Ms. Sherrill, who went to the Naval Academy and served as a Navy helicopter pilot. “I have had so many friends come to me who tried to get justice who could not get it through the chain of command. I think Vanessa has just sort of brought so many of those emotions to a head.”
The surge of interest by nonmilitary women in the issue has been one of the most heartening developments to stem from the tragedy, advocates for Specialist Guillen say.
“We are now able to relate to the civilian community and say, ‘Yeah, guys, this is happening, this has always been happening,’” said Army Capt. Victoria Kositz, a West Point graduate. “I see a shift in the conversation from ‘You should have known going into the military,’ to ‘This is an outrage, let’s make sure it never happens again.’”
Captain Kositz said that while she was at West Point, a freshman student was raped in her room and, when it was reported, “Her cadet chain of command behind her back said she was a drama queen.” While serving at Fort Bragg, N.C., where she was the only woman in her platoon, a group of sergeants printed out a picture of her in a swimsuit from her Facebook account and passed it around. One of them cornered her at a social gathering at a bar and made an obscene remark, she said. She slapped him, and was given a letter of reprimand that, she said, “ruined my time at that post.”
The Black Lives Movement, particularly as it pertains to Ms. Taylor, has provided lift for this moment too.
“The momentum is definitely different this time around,” said Deshauna Barber, an Army Reserve captain and chief executive of the Service Women’s Action Network. “In many ways, it is the Latino community driving the conversation.”
Specialist Guillen’s mother is Spanish-speaking and has used Latino channels to keep attention on her daughter’s case. The League of United Latin American Citizens on Friday met with Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, who then announced that he had ordered an independent review of command climate and culture in the Army in light of the case.
“The military is seen as this very patriotic noble space,” Ms. Barber said. “Well, if we are passionate about the troops, we should be passionate about Vanessa.”
Women who never felt their cases were taken seriously say this is a moment they hope will last.
“My voice was not heard,” said Francine King, who said she was assaulted while serving in the Army in 2004 at Fort Bragg. “I would hope more attention is given now. Before, no one wanted to hear our cries.”