The family of murdered Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen filed a $35 million civil lawsuit on Friday.
Guillen, a 20-year-old Army specialist, was declared missing from the base in Killeen, Texas, on April 22, 2020. Weeks and months would go by until her body was found dismembered, burned and buried beneath cement in several shallow graves about 20 miles from Fort Hood in Belton, Texas, along the Leon River on June 30, 2020.
The main suspect in her slaying, fellow Army specialist Aaron Robinson, subsequently died by suicide while authorities were closing in on him to make an arrest.
Several investigations revealed that Guillen suffered sexual harassment and assault during her service, and, according to an affidavit from her sister, contemplated suicide but begged their mother not to take any action against Fort Hood out of fear of retaliation. That was until Robinson allegedly bludgeoned Guillen to death in an armory room, and Robinson’s civilian girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar – the only person criminally charged following Guillen’s gruesome murder – allegedly later helped him chop up and hide the body.
The new lawsuit filed on Friday under the Federal Torts Claims Acts on behalf of Guillen’s family is seeking $35 million in damages from the U.S. government on the basis of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, rape, sodomy and wrongful death.
The litigation comes following a decision Thursday by a three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco stating that an Army colonel could proceed with a lawsuit against a former Air Force General over a sexual assault allegation. The court found that a 1950’s Supreme Court decision known as the Feres Doctrine, which bars service members injured during active duty from seeking damages from the federal government, could not be broadly applied by the Department of Defense to include sexual assault and harassment claims.
"The hardest part was living in Killeen while we did on foot searches, unemployed, fighting the ARMY that was supposed to protect my sister, being stalked, fearing for our lives, and just asking for the bare minimum, JUSTICE," one of Guillen’s sisters, Mayra Guillen, wrote in an affidavit attached to the lawsuit.
"The ARMY must be held accountable for their wrongdoings, the way they handled their investigations early on, the way that Vanessa was treated, the nightmare she had to endure while serving and only trying to serve her country and her family," she wrote. "Vanessa did not deserve to be sexually harassed, to be murdered, to be cut up into pieces, to be burned, to be buried into cement … To be taken away from life, from her family. We have a huge emptiness in our hearts ever since."
Guillen's death and claims by her family that she was harassed and assaulted at the Texas base sparked a social media movement of former and active service members who came forward about their own experiences in the military with the hashtag #IAmVaessaGuillen. State and federal lawmakers have since passed legislation in honor of Guillen that removed some authority from commanders and gave survivors more options to report.
The lawyer representing the Guillen family, Natalie Khawam, said that if the Army denies their claim, she plans on filling a federal lawsuit in California because Guillen told her mother that she experienced sexual harassment in 2019 while undergoing field training at Fort Irwin in San Bernardino County, the Texas Tribune reported. Friday’s lawsuit outlines two instances in which Guillen was harassed as a soldier at Fort Hood – once when a "higher up" solicited her for a "threesome," and a second when another higher up shined a light on her and watched while she was washing up at night after a field training exercise.
"This will be an opportunity for every victim to feel not only like they have a voice but that they can be made whole," Khawam told The Associated Press of the lawsuit.
Guillen’s shocking death brought attention to a string of other deaths, suicides, and crime at Fort Hood.
In December 2020, Army leaders presented the findings of an independent review committee, admitting that the command climate at Fort Hood "was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault." Top commanders were fired or suspended because of the report amid a huge leadership shake-up at the base.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.