The Army vowed change after Vanessa Guillén’s murder. One year later, it’s just getting started
"I think that the jury’s still out on whether or not there has been a cultural shift at Fort Hood.”
Mayra Guillén turned 22 years old on the day U.S. Army investigators told her they had found her sister’s body buried in three separate shallow graves next to a river in central Texas.
The news came on June 30, two months after her 20-year-old sister, Spc. Vanessa Guillén, went missing from Fort Hood, Texas, on April 22, 2020. At first, the assumption at Fort Hood was she was absent without leave (AWOL), but the news around her disappearance intensified after her family said she was being sexually harassed by another soldier. Soon, the Army was offering $15,000 for credible information about her whereabouts. Investigators would later learn that Vanessa had been killed on post and buried roughly 20 miles away
During those two months of searching, the family spoke out frequently about the lack of communication from the Army, and what they saw as a lack of urgency in finding Vanessa. Finding Vanessa’s body had been Mayra’s only wish. She and her sister’s relationship had taken on a new closeness in the months leading up to her disappearance; as sisters only a year and a half apart in age, she said they’d been “connecting on a different level.”
When Vanessa went missing, she was terrified at the thought that they’d never find her; that they’d be left questioning what happened. But knowing didn’t make things easier. Mayra distinctly remembered how the CID investigators “told me all the details like it was nothing,” she said. “I’ll never forget how inhumane they were about the whole situation.”
Now, a year after Vanessa Guillén was murdered by another soldier at Fort Hood, Mayra and her family are still working to bring real change to the Army to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. Mayra has dedicated herself to advocating for the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, legislation that would take the prosecution decision for sex-related offenses out of a soldier’s chain of command and reform sexual harassment reporting in the military.
That’s kept her so busy, Mayra said, that she hasn’t been able to work or go back to school — this has, in many ways, become a full-time job for her.
“Sometimes it gets hard having to be on top of everything,” she said. “But I can’t complain. I’m doing this for a big cause, and I feel like it’s my responsibility now.”
Vanessa Guillén’s disappearance and death marked a flashpoint for long-standing issues facing the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assault. And for her family, it seems justice may remain out of reach: The man believed to have killed Vanessa, Spc. Aaron Robinson, died by suicide on the evening of June 30. He’d been confined to his barracks room after authorities found what they believed to be Vanessa’s remains, but according to court documents, he “absconded from Fort Hood,” and as authorities closed in on him, Robinson shot himself. It remains unclear how Robinson got away from his barracks room or obtained a firearm.
What happened on April 22, and what investigators pieced together in the months that followed, has become a catalyst for cultural change in the Army. The service was forced to acknowledge its failure to confront sexual harassment and assault, and the culture that ultimately allowed it to flourish; lawmakers, advocacy groups, and soldiers demanded accountability; and Army leaders from the top down have been told to refocus their attention on their new priority — people.
It sometimes seems that there are two armies: the Army before Vanessa Guillén’s death, and the Army after. But no one knew that would be the case that Wednesday in April. Vanessa had simply disappeared.
‘It was a family in distress’
Much of what we now know about the events of April 22 comes from the testimony of Robinson’s girlfriend at the time, Cecily Aguilar.
Robinson allegedly killed Guillén by striking her in the head with a hammer “multiple times” while they were both in an armory on Fort Hood, according to court documents. Investigators say he then put her body into a box and drove out to the Leon River in Belton, Texas, approximately 20 miles from the installation. Aguilar told investigators that Robinson picked her up and drove her out to the river where the two proceeded to dismember Guillén’s body with “a hatchet or an ax or a machete type knife,” according to court documents.
Prosecutors say the two allegedly attempted to burn the body but were unsuccessful. They instead buried Guillen in three separate holes. Days later on April 26, court documents allege they returned and “continued the process of breaking down the remains,” before burying the remains again and covering them with concrete purchased on Facebook. They burned their clothes later that night.
Within four days of Vanessa’s death, the alleged crime was over, but it would be two months until investigators — and Vanessa’s family — would have a better picture of what had actually happened. The family grew overwhelmingly frustrated with the Army’s handling of the search and ensuing investigation. They recruited a civilian search team to help them look for their missing daughter.
Then on June 30, Vanessa’s body was found.
It would be several months until her family received answers to the questions: How could this happen? Why did it take so long to find out? And who is responsible? Some of the answers they were looking for came in December following an independent panel’s review of the climate and culture at Fort Hood, commonly referred to as the Fort Hood report, which was ordered by Ryan McCarthy, the Secretary of the Army at the time.
The report identified a toxic and harmful culture for women at the installation where many soldiers feared retaliation for reporting assault or harassment. Women were pushed “into survival mode” at Fort Hood, while leaders turned a blind eye to a “clearly identified high risk” of sexual assault.
“Numerous female soldiers reported that it is a daily battle to get through the day without allowing the multiple advances from male soldiers upset them,” the report said. “They explained that male soldiers routinely, openly, aggressively and relentlessly approach female soldiers. When soldiers explain this to leaders, they say they don’t have any way to stop that kind of behavior.”
As for the sluggish pace of the investigation and the piecemeal information given to the family, the report revealed a woefully understaffed and under-resourced Criminal Investigation Command office that bungled its investigation of Vanessa’s disappearance. It also validated a frequent complaint that the family had as the search for Vanessa was still ongoing: the communication from the Army throughout the investigation was abysmal. Mayra said they frequently learned of updates through media reports instead of from the command or investigators.
“From the time of SPC Guillén’s disappearance on April 22, 2020, through the remainder of the Spring and Summer months, the Fort Hood PAO found itself unable to adequately inform the public and pragmatically inform public perception,” the Fort Hood report said, adding that there was a “pervasive absence of a human touch” in the command’s interactions with both the Guillén family and the general public.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) said she heard from the Guillén family for the first time in May and the broken communication was one of the family’s primary concerns.
“It was a family in distress, obviously,” Garcia said in a recent phone interview. “They were complaining of no communication, or lack of communication, between the family and the Army and the people there at Fort Hood. They were very concerned about not getting information, not getting updates, not knowing what was going on with the search, whether or not it was even being investigated — I mean it was a laundry list of complaints that really all centered on lack of communication and lack of trust.”
While the family was struggling with Fort Hood leadership, the most senior Army leader couldn’t understand why Fort Hood was failing to show haste in their search and in their communication to the family and the broader public.
In a Pentagon press conference on April 30 — eight days after Guillén went missing — Secretary McCarthy addressed her disappearance, vowing they would “not stop looking for her until we find her.” Yet even after the Army Secretary publicly weighed in on the investigation, the response from Fort Hood remained deficient.
McCarthy found the command’s handling of the incident inexplicable, according to a person familiar with his thinking. To McCarthy, it was baffling that he was addressing an issue happening at Fort Hood, while the chain of command showed little sense of urgency. McCarthy declined to be interviewed on the record for this article.
All in all, McCarthy was overwhelmingly disappointed with the response he saw from Fort Hood, including its handling of Robinson and the fact that he got away from the barracks where he was being held and later died by suicide. McCarthy was particularly frustrated with the narrative that Guillén was AWOL; it was obvious that wasn’t the case, he thought, especially after her belongings were found in the armory room she worked in, according to the person familiar with his thinking. And that’s to say nothing of the broken lines of communication between the command and the family about what was going on.
Mayra, however, said the family felt ignored by McCarthy. When McCarthy visited Fort Hood in August, Natalie Khawam, the family’s attorney, said the Guilléns were “livid” that he hadn’t contacted them to meet. Khawam said they’d reached out twice to McCarthy’s office about a meeting, but McCarthy said at a press conference during his visit that his office had “not been contacted directly about whether the family would want to meet with me.” He said he’d sent a handwritten condolence card and was “very open” to meeting with them.
McCarthy was holding off on speaking with the family until he’d announced his decision to suspend or relieve 14 Fort Hood commanders in December, the person familiar with his thinking explained. As someone ultimately responsible for making a decision about those leaders, he thought it was responsible that he remained objective before talking with the Guillén family. The source said McCarthy, a former Army Ranger who has a young daughter himself, thought about Vanessa daily, and considered her “front and center” of some of his most painful memories in the Army.
‘We’ve got to keep pushing on this’
Since April 2020, the Army has been forced to pry itself apart and confront its flaws before Congress, the American public, and a grieving family.
After the release of the Fort Hood report in December, McCarthy was intent on making changes to address the glaring problems the independent committee identified, the person familiar with his thinking said.
In December, the Army announced a new policy for how to report missing soldiers, which lays out expectations for unit commanders during the first 48 hours that a soldier fails to report for duty. In March 2021, Army Forces Command — which oversees more than 750,000 soldiers in active duty, the Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve — directed commanders to appoint an investigating officer from outside the brigade of a soldier accused of sexual harassment. The Army also established the People First Task Force which is working to address the dozens of recommendations made in the Fort Hood report for how to refine the service’s handling of sexual assault and harassment, how the Army can better take care of its soldiers, and overall improve Army culture. In March, the task force held an event at West Point with 100 of the service’s newest enlisted soldiers and officers to get feedback on Army policies regarding racism, sexual assault and harassment, and suicide.
All of these steps are the direct result of the Fort Hood report, which shined a spotlight on the harsh reality of life in the Army for too many soldiers. While many of the problems identified in the report are the everyday reality for junior soldiers, Army leaders told Task & Purpose they were shocked by what they read.
McCarthy saw in devastating detail just how rampant sexual assault and harassment is in the Army, and how in turn it became something women in the service feel they have to accept. Former Undersecretary of the Army James McPherson said the report was “gut-wrenching” and that he struggled to accept that what he was looking at was “my Army.”
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston said when he finished reading it in its entirety he flipped back to the first page and wrote three words: rage, disappointment, failure. He said on Tuesday that hasn’t changed.
“I still have these deep feelings or emotions when I think of this,” he said. “Those three — I don’t think they’ll ever change. And I’m not sure I want them to. Again, if I’m really trying to change the culture, I have to have some emotion, people have to understand this is important.”
Despite the Fort Hood report showing the state of things at the installation, it didn’t answer all of the family’s questions about what happened that day last April. The Guillén family is still waiting for the report of another investigation carried out by Gen. John “Mike” Murray, the head of Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas.
Murray arrived at Fort Hood after the independent committee completed their review and focused more directly on Vanessa’s chain of command and the actions they did or did not take in the wake of her disappearance. Army Forces Command has been reviewing Murray’s report for several weeks..
Gen. Michael X. Garrett, the commander of Army Forces Command, told reporters on Friday that Murray’s report was complete and they were working to notify those implicated before its release. A second investigation of the leaders of the 1st Cavalry Division is also close to being finalized, Garrett said.
Lupe Guillén, Vanessa’s younger sister, hopes to get clarity on two things in those reports: What was Robinson’s motive for allegedly murdering her sister? And what did the Army learn of Vanessa’s sexual harassment? Investigators said Vanessa was killed because she saw a photo of Robinson and Aguilar, who was married to another soldier, and threatened to report the affair, as USA Today reported. But the family has consistently rejected that as a valid explanation. And while they’ve said repeatedly that Vanessa told them she was being sexually harassed, investigators have said they haven’t found evidence that Robinson was behind it.
“They always say she was not sexually harassed, or [use] the word alleged,” Lupe told Task & Purpose at Fort Hood on Monday. “I want to hear ‘Vanessa Guillén was being sexually harassed’ … they’re too afraid to say it because they know what will happen.”
The Guilléns are still working with lawmakers to pass the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, which is expected to be reintroduced in May by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. After traveling to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, the family met with Speier on Wednesday. She told Task & Purpose that they’re “grateful that we’re continuing to pursue” the legislation, because “they want justice.”
“They’re still distraught,” she said.
An unfortunate truth about this case is that while the Guillén family’s suffering may fade with time, there will always be unanswered questions because the primary suspect in their daughter’s murder died by suicide following the confession of his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar.
Aguilar was indicted in July on charges of tampering with documents or proceedings and conspiracy to tamper with documents or proceedings for her alleged role in helping Robinson get rid of Guillén’s body. In March, Aguilar’s attorney filed a motion to strike her confession from the record, saying she wasn’t read her Miranda rights at the beginning of an interrogation on June 30 which yielded the details about what happened on April 22, and was not told that what she said could be held against her in court.
A judge has given the prosecution until May 5 to respond to the motion.
Looking forward, the Army still has plenty of work ahead of it to implement real, lasting change. Speier pointed to the Fort Hood report’s acknowledgement that the broken culture at the installation wasn’t the result of just one commander; the independent committee had looked back “as early as 2014,” they said in the report.
“There was a long line of leaders at that base that ignored sexual assault, sexual harassment, were sloppy in terms of the way they responded to climate surveys and the fact that they weren’t looked at,” she explained. “So I think that the jury’s still out on whether or not there has been a cultural shift at Fort Hood.”
Grinston acknowledged on Tuesday that while he knew the Army was a complex organization, it’s taking “more time than [he] wanted” to improve the toxic culture specifically at Fort Hood and beyond.
“We’ve got to keep pushing on this,” he said, adding that it may even take multiple years for the change to completely sink down into the ranks. He has to speak about changing the Army’s culture regularly, he acknowledged, for it to really be at top-of-mind for leaders at every level.
“I’ve got to say it every day, every breath, every moment,” he said. “So that we don’t have any more Vanessa Guilléns.”
A step in the right direction
On a warm day in Killeen, Texas, members of the Guillén family gathered with Fort Hood officials on Monday to unveil a memorial gate dedicated to Vanessa. The gate, which was announced in November, is on the road leading to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment where Vanessa had been assigned.
More than a dozen people, including commanders from III Corps, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and several of their wives, were in attendance at the ceremony. As the Guillén family arrived in a white van on the road next to the gate, the 1st Cavalry Division band played a slow rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Lt. Gen. Pat White, commander of Fort Hood, greeted the family with several other uniformed officials and escorted them to their seats.
The gate, made of white brick, was draped in a tarp featuring the III Corps insignia. The unit’s chaplain began the ceremony with a prayer, asking that the gate “stand as a reminder for the thousands who pass each day that we have been given a sacred trust: America’s sons and daughters.”
During brief remarks ahead of the gate’s unveiling, White said they are “not going to forget Vanessa,” and vowed that her legacy would live on. On the gate behind him was a photo of Vanessa, along with a plaque describing her life and achievements. Vanessa’s “tragic loss,” the plaque says, “became a seminal event for the United States Army, resulting in significant institutional change.”
It was an emotional moment. Lupe, who was wearing an #IAmVanessaGuillén pin on her shirt, leaned into Mayra, who wrapped her arms around her little sister’s shoulders. Their father stood quietly across from them. Their mother did not attend. The week of her daughter’s murder is still far too difficult for her.
Following the ceremony, Mayra called the gate an “honor for Vanessa” and said it’s “a step in the right direction.” Lupe thanked White and Maj. Gen. John Richardson IV, who replaced Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt in September, for “being here in support of my family.”
After a tumultuous and painful year, the scene seemed to suggest that the relationship between the Guillén family and the Army that failed Vanessa had mended ever so slightly; A grieving family surrounded by uniformed officials, wearing the same uniform Vanessa once wore. It almost seemed like a moment of reconciliation.
But that wasn’t the case. Vanessa is still gone, and her family is still grieving. While the words on the memorial gate’s plaque say her death resulted in “significant institutional change” in the Army, they are, after all, just words, and her family is still waiting to see what action will follow. They want to know that the culture in the Army really is changing; they want to see the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act passed; and they want to be assured what happened to Vanessa will never happen to anyone else’s daughter, sister, or friend. They’re not yet convinced.
“I thanked them for taking the time,” Lupe said. “Not for what they’re doing, because they’re not doing anything.”
Feature image: Task & Purpose photo illustration showing a portrait of Spc. Vanessa Guillén and soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, during a recent ceremony unveiling a memorial gate for the soldier. (Task & Purpose photo by Haley Britzky)