Dawn at Fort Hood resembles that of an advertisement for President Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984. The video began with a
wrapped in gentle music announcing, "It's daylight again in America."
And you could see images of residential neighborhoods: a boy delivering newspapers, an executive getting out of a taxi, a tractor tilling the land in the shy early sun, a couple getting married.
Order, prosperity, good vibes.
No one would want to get out of there.
At eight in the morning, this military base in Texas, one of the largest in the United States, has been in full swing for a long time. The military have just completed their hour and a half of daily exercise. Children go to kindergartens and schools. Parents, to their jobs. At Delta Company, Eighth Engineer Battalion, Second Brigade, they rehearse the changing of the guard ceremony that they will celebrate at noon and sing their hymn: "March, sing our song, with the Army of the Free."
Fort Hood is home to 38,000 soldiers and the number exceeds 70,000 people if families and civilian employees are included.
It is like a big city with restaurants, bowling alleys, hotels, bank offices and hairdressers, but without impossible traffic.
You can even see uniformed men on bicycles.
Located between Austin and Waco, it occupies 214,000 acres (just over 86 hectares), more than the entire city of New York, and is the only base in the entire country capable of hosting and training two armored divisions.
It was founded in January 1942, when the United States became involved in World War II.
A young man named Elvis Presley passed through their ranks.
Mural honoring Soldier Guillén in Houston, Texas
Portrait of Vanesa Guillén in the living room of her mother's house.
River site where the body of soldier Guillén was found
The residents of the place have installed a small memorial near the León River, Texas.
The residents of the place have installed a small memorial near the León River, Texas.
On the morning of April 22, 2020, one of those peaceful and orderly mornings, the soldier Vanessa Guillén, 20, disappeared.
She had been harassed for months, in the eyes of her unit, without anyone taking action.
They found his dismembered body two months later near the base.
Another soldier had killed her.
It has taken more than a year for the Army to consider proof of the harassment, although not by the man who killed her.
Twenty-one senior officials have been relieved or punished for the serious mistakes made at each point in the process.
An independent investigation carried out at the base after the event revealed a climate "permissive with harassment and sexual assault" that led the military simply to act "in survival mode". The panel interviewed 507 women and, regarding sexual assault, found 93 credible testimonies of which only 59 had reported it, for fear of ostracism. When it comes to bullying, the researchers found 135 credible cases among those 507 women surveyed and only 72 had reported it. Half of them said they did not trust their superiors.
Vanessa's story focused on the scourge of abuse in the Army, but it also pointed to Fort Hood as a particularly cursed place: its sex crime rate is 75% higher than the Army average, it suffers the second highest incidence suicide attempts and ranks worst in drug detection.
While investigators were looking for Vanessa, they came across the body of Gregory Morales, another soldier who had disappeared a year earlier and declared a deserter.
Flowers in memory of the soldier Vanessa Guillén next to the León River, where her remains were found.
On video, the story of the military woman, daughter of Mexicans.
(Photo | Video: Mónica González)
Fort Hood is nicknamed "the great place" for the quality of life it offers to the military and their families.
It is the headquarters of the III Corps and also proudly calls itself "the hammer of America."
The soldier Vanessa Guillén was killed with a hammer blow to the head.
They then put her in a box on wheels, took her to a river, dismembered her and burned her.
Now it gives its name to a law that seeks to change the way in which sexual violence is treated in the Army.
1. HARASSMENT, DISAPPEARANCE AND DEATH
Several crosses are nailed to a bank of the León River, surrounded by messages, virgins and beads;
They represent three graves for the three different holes in which Vanessa's remains were buried: the head separated from the trunk and the trunk from her limbs.
Gloria, his mother, went there once, on December 14, because she wanted to see it with her own eyes and pray.
The priest consoles her, tells her that Vanessa died like Jesus Christ, with suffering, to save the lives of other girls.
Others tell him to forget the pain, that all those doggies were made for him already dead.
But she thinks about the ones they did to her in life because she remembers everything that happened since she entered Fort Hood in 2018 as a slow-motion horror movie.
Gloria, mother of Vanessa Guillén, poses for a portrait in Houston.
“In three or four months she was no longer the same. One day he said to me, 'Fort Hood is hell, Mommy. I am seeing a lot of harassment of young women, a lot of evil, there are many gangs, a lot of drugs everywhere, many suicides, ”recalls the 43-year-old woman. "I told him to break that contract immediately and get out of there, but he couldn't, he had to serve three years before he could do it," he continues.
Her mood worsened, she lost weight, her hair was falling out. One Saturday in February 2020 Gloria sat her in the kitchen and made her talk. “Do you remember I told you they stalked girls, Mommy? I am one of them, 'he told me. I asked him if they had touched her but she replied that two friends were there protecting her. I begged him to report it, but he assured me that it would be useless, that they never paid attention to the complaints. "If the people you go to are the same people who rape, do you think they are going to do something?" He explained. He told me that he would wait until he could get out of there to talk. He had a year to go ”. Vanessa requested that destination because she was a three-hour drive from her family, who live in Houston. Vanessa was the second of six siblings born in the United States, to parents originally from Mexico, still without papers today.
It is difficult to breathe in the Guillén house. The entire home has been transformed into a mausoleum for Vanessa. Photos, drawings and paintings with his face occupy all the walls. Her youth, her overwhelming beauty, her bright eyes watch from every corner. The shelves down to the floor are full of souvenirs, postcards, decorations given by other soldiers, flags. His cap, his boots, his prom photo. The mother emails the president, Joe Biden, but he does not reply. The grandmother wears a T-shirt with the face of the deceased granddaughter, also the aunt. It has just been a year since his death. They would not confirm the tragedy until June 30, when they found the remains, but since that April 22 he stopped responding to messages, everyone in his house knew that something bad had happened.
That Wednesday morning Guillén had to process broken equipment in one weapons room and validate some numbering in another. At 10:03 he entered the first and at 10.15 he went to the second. In the latter was Private Aaron Robinson. She was not heard from again. At 11.05, he no longer responded to the text message from the soldier in the first room. He had left his keys, his military identification, and his credit card. Her roommate hadn't seen her since she left the barracks that morning. Private Robinson, also 20, said Guillén had just left after doing his job. Two witnesses later testified, in May, that that same day they saw him transferring a large, hard box with wheels, which appeared to be very heavy, to his vehicle.
Vanessa Guillén's remains rest in peace at the "Dignity Memorial in Houston" cemetery. Monica Gonzalez
Vanessa's family was desperate.
That afternoon of April 22, Mayra, the older sister, went to Fort Hood.
They would spend weeks at a nearby motel while looking for her.
They wanted to hire a detective, but they had no money.
Although the Army immediately understood that her absence was not voluntary, she was declared, for bureaucratic reasons, absent without permission - the prelude to desertion - from April 24 to June 30, when some workers working on a fence next to the Lion River in Belton Texas, they found human remains.
That same June night, Robinson's girlfriend confessed.
Cecily Aguilar had previously been questioned by the police, but admitted that she had lied.
The soldier had killed his partner with hammer blows in the weapons room.
She left Fort Hood already dead, inside the box.
Robinson asked Cecily for help to make her disappear, he picked her up by car and together they went to the river.
The same day they found her, the soldier escaped from military custody and, when the police came after him, he committed suicide with a firearm.
2. A SECRET TO VOICES IN THE BASE
“Guillén was sexually harassed by a supervisor.
This supervisor created an intimidating and hostile environment.
Those responsible for the unit were informed of this harassment, as were those responsible for that supervisor, and they did not take adequate measures ”.
"The commanders failed to correct the actions of a toxic leader."
"The acting head of Fort Hood and his staff were excessively reluctant to collaborate with the media and provide the correct information [after the soldier's disappearance] in order to protect the investigation."
"When Fort Hood adopted a communication strategy, it had already lost the trust of the Guillén family, the community around it, and the nation."
Soldiers rest at the conclusion of a change of command ceremony at the Fort Hood military base.Monica Gonzalez
The citations correspond to the administrative investigation launched last September by General Michael Garrett on all the investigations into the disappearance and death of Guillén. It was published on April 30, less than two months ago. Until then, the Army had not recognized proven, black on white, the existence of any siege, which she officially refused to report but was known, and does not link it to her death.
The harassment had started in the summer of 2019, with a sexual comment from a supervisor, who suggested that she participate in a threesome. That upset Guillén and, from that moment on, the supervisor made her a target. Two of his colleagues reported this to their superiors. She caught her attention in front of her peers and constantly used her as a bad example. On one occasion, in a field training exercise, this superior came to meet her while she was alone, washing herself in the forest.
The same investigation concludes that Private Robinson had been sexually harassing at least one other soldier from the base, but has found no evidence that he also did it with Guillén. A motive for this crime has not been officially established. “Robinson's girlfriend told the police that, according to what he told her, he killed Guillén because the young woman had threatened to tell about an
that he had, something nonsensical. The most likely hypothesis is that Robinson wanted to attack her and she defended herself, but it will not be possible to conclude because at the base they did everything so badly that they let her escape and now he is dead, "says Colonel Don Christensen, a retired prosecutor and military judge. who now presides over Protect our defender, an organization that fights against sexual violence in the Army.
The León River at the height of Belton (Texas), where the body of Vanessa Guillén was found.Monica Gonzalez
Christensen was chief prosecutor of the Air Force between 2010 and 2014, a period in which he saw and suffered system failures, until a specific case broke the camel's back and made him quit: “I prosecuted a pilot for sexually assaulting a civilian in Italy.
His command did everything possible to prevent him from going to trial, but we got a trial and we won ... But four months later, the higher command overturned the sentence because he was a good family man and the entire response of the Air Force to that decision was do everything possible to protect the general who overturned the sentence.
The conviction was in October 2012, it was revoked in February 2013 and I retired the following year ”.
In fiscal year 2020, of the 5,640 sexual assault allegations officially filed by US military supervisors, only 255 went to trial.
And of those, Christensen explains, only 50 led to a sex crime-related conviction.
The Army considers it proven that Vanessa Guillén was systematically harassed by a military man, but that she was killed by another and that this other had harassed another female soldier, but they see no evidence that he did it with her (until he killed her with hammer blows on April 22 2020).
Another report by an independent committee, made up of civilian researchers and published on December 8, drew a climate poisonous enough to make even this seem plausible.
The 136 pages they occupy hardly give a break.
"The sexual assault and harassment prevention and response program [Sharp] was ineffective to the point that there was a permissive environment for sexual assault and harassment," he begins.
“In Fort Hood there was a clear risk of sexual assaults related to soldiers that could have been intervened, but unfortunately the approach of those responsible was
business as usual
that caused the soldiers, especially in the combat brigades, to adopt the survival mode [...] and were afraid to report the attacks and be isolated and re-victimized ”.
3. NEW LAWS AND CULTURE CHANGE
Commander Gabriela Thompson joined the base's communication office last September and is the one who guides EL PAÍS on the walk through the base, where everyone greets with a smile and, in the light of day, things seem run like clockwork. How is it possible that this happened? “Trust is something that has eroded over the last 20 years. We attribute this to the fact that we were focused on operations during that time. The trust between the soldiers and the command was damaged and if there is no such trust, they will not report a case of harassment or aggression ”, he explains. Since the scandal, he adds, there has been an increase in complaints, although "that does not mean that abuses have increased, but that people feel a little more comfortable reporting."
Altar in honor of Vanessa Guillén at her family's home in Houston, Texas.
The base has now launched Operation People First, a package of measures at different levels that seeks to restore that trust, from facilitating communication channels to strengthening training on the identification of harassment.
"It's not just about
" says Thompson, but about "putting them in real situations."
Improving communication abroad is another of the many recommendations made by the experts. Colonel Myles Caggins also joined the public relations team after the Guillén case. He came from other far from easy communication missions, such as the Iraq war or the Guantánamo prison. It also talks about trust. "That turns into a ball that metastasizes and causes a crisis," he says. The soldier Guillén, he continues, "was our sister and her legacy lives on in how we try to change the culture here." In the regiment of the 3rd cavalry, where she served, there are 4,000 soldiers, of them 500 women. Caggins highlights that the first sergeant of 2020 is a Latina woman, Ashlee Ibarra.
Vanessa's crime happened in an already toxic environment, with high rates of suicide, drug use and other crimes compared to the Army average. On these, it was not acted as it should. According to the report of the independent investigative panel, which concluded in early November, between 2018 and 2020 50 soldiers committed suicide and 11 were killed, but the head of the investigation of Fort Hood has only worked on the cases of two soldiers missing in five years. Elder Fernandes, a 23-year-old military man, was found last August hanged in a tree near the base after missing days.
After the December review, 14 positions from Fort Hood and the Army Crime Investigation Unit were relieved or suspended. And after the April findings, six more officers have been penalized. Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said: "That report will lead the Army to change our culture."
The reports and the pain.
Decades of unsuccessful struggle to curb sexual assault in the Army have sparked a change in the United States Congress.
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been campaigning for years to get a law through that would mark a turning point in the way the military world deals with these issues and is gaining more and more Republican support, including that of the Senator Joni Ernst, a former lieutenant colonel who, she revealed in 2019, was also a victim of assault.
View of the regiment to which Mexican-born soldier Vanessa Guillén belonged to Fort Hood, the largest active duty base in the US Army, Monica Gonzalez
The proposed law would remove from the chain of command the authority to decide whether to prosecute a military man for crimes not contemplated in military justice, such as those related to sexual violence or robbery. That is, military prosecutors but independent of the chain of command would make the decision. The case of the Fort Hood soldier has given another impetus to these initiatives. In the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Jackie Speier has introduced another similar bill, the law I am Vanessa Guillén, I am Vanessa Guillén.
As happened with the death of the African American George Floyd, who also gave name to a bill, family and organizations trust that Guillén's death will serve to change the course of history.
It is a bad matter that in the United States they put a law with your name.
Guillén's figure even appears on one of the entrance gates to Fort Hood.
Gloria, her mother, says that she wanted to be a soldier since she was a child, that instead of playing with dolls she asked her for little water pistols.
He always thought that the fixation would pass, but when he finished high school he enlisted.
"He told me: 'Mommy, I want to serve my country."
Gloria and her husband were unable to attend their daughter's graduation ceremony.
Two decades after emigrating from Mexico, they are still without papers.
Editor: Amanda Mars
Video and photo: Mónica González
Video editing: Montserrat Lemus
Visual editing: Héctor Guerrero
Design - Front End: Alfredo García