A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has introduced a bill they hope will change how the military responds to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The bill is named after Vanessa Guillen, a Fort Hood soldier who went missing earlier this year and was later found killed. She had told family members that she was being harassed at work, but did not formally report it for fear that no one would listen.
The I Am Vanessa Guillen bill would establish an independent investigator outside of the chain of command to look into allegations of sexual assault and harassment. It would also create a confidential reporting system and make sexual harassment a crime in the uniform code of military justice.
Standing in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, Vanessa’s sister Mayra Guillen said the bill is a way to honor the murdered soldier. “She’s now an American hero that will save lots of lives,” she said. “And it’s not fair that that had to happen to Vanessa in order for everyone to pay attention.”
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California has been leading the effort with Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. She promised the family that “Vanessa’s life has not been lost in vain.”
“This is the military’s Me Too moment,” Speier said. “The rot has festered for generations and the data proves what survivors have been telling us for years. What we have been doing is not working.”
She noted in 2018, 20,000 service members were sexually assaulted, according to a Pentagon survey. But only a fraction of them came forward and filed a complaint.
Mullin added the goal is to get it right. “The most important thing about this bill is that we take it out of them investigating themselves. We put special prosecutors who are trained.”
Some lawmakers oppose taking the decision to prosecute outside the chain of command. They counter it would undermine the military justice system. Past efforts at similar reforms have met bipartisan opposition.
The new bill has over 70 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, including Colorado Rep. Jason Crow. A veteran himself, Crow said the military had failed in tackling the problem of sexual assault and harassment. “So when the military fails, we will step in and we will fix it,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with the Guillen family on Wednesday and pledged to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote.
“I gave the family my commitment that this important first step to combating sexual harassment and assault would come to the House Floor for a vote, but the Congress will not stop until we have finally, fully ended this epidemic – in the military, in the workplace and in all places,” Pelosi said in a statement.