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Congress to let military reform bill #IAmVanessaGuillen die without a vote

Congress won't take up the bill this year to reform the military's handling of sexual abuse. But disappointed supporters still hope it will be approved in 2021. The Guillén family spoke with Univision about the urgency of the law and the legacy of the murdered soldier. (Leer en español)
13 Dic 2020 – 12:06 PM EST
U.S. Army Private First Class Vanessa Guillen's mother Gloria Guillen addresses supporters and calls for justice in Vanessa's death and the closure of Fort Hood during a rally on the National Mall in front of the U.S. Capitol July 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. Crédito: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite high hopes that Congress would act quickly to reform the military justice system to protect members of the armed forces from sexual abuse, the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill will not be voted on this year, according sources on Capitol Hill.

The bill, named after the murdered Army soldier, Vanessa Guillen, was introduced in September amidst much fanfare, and appeared to have strong bipartisan support. The Guillen family scored a White House invitation from President Donald Trump, and were received by the House speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California.

But it now appears to have fallen victim to other major issues that took priority, including debate over a still unresolved covid-19 relief package.

Despite her disappointment, Guillen’s mother, Gloria Guillen, told Univision that she has been assured that the bill will get a vote early next year.

"I'm a religious woman, so I have faith that this bill will pass some time after January," she told Univision in an interview with her lawyer, Natalie Khawam. "The bill is going to get moving again, because we need it to protect those who protect us, the soldiers," she added.

The bill seeks to make sexual harassment a crime within the military justice system and remove the chain of command from prosecutorial decisions regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment. Victims of abuse in the military says their cases are frequently covered up by officers concerned about protecting their unit’s reputation, and turn a blind eye to retaliation against the accuser.

Despite the setback, the bill will be reintroduced in the next Congress and will be put to a vote quickly, according to the office of one of the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat.

The bill has an identical companion in the Senate, sponsored by Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Corey Booker of New Jersey.

Victim advocates are hopeful that president-elect Joe Biden will put his weight behind the bill. In a statement last week to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Biden said: "As Commander-in-Chief I will make it a priority at the highest levels to end the scourge of sexual violence and harassment against women service members."

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“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get it passed this year. It’s very disheartening and I’m very disappointed with Congress,” said Khawam, who questioned the priorities of congressional leaders. “We are sitting back and watching other legislation getting passed,” said noting how the House of Representatives voted last week on legislation to decriminalize marijuana and the creation of two museums, a National Hispanic Museum and a Women’s History Museum.

“Soldier’s lives, I think that should be our priority in America,” said Khawam. “Victims of sexual misconduct, that should be our priority. It just goes to show that women’s rights continue to be treated second to everything else,” she said.

An independent review panel this week published its finding into a “permissive” culture of abuse at Fort Hood US Army base in Texas, revealing a shocking number of unreported cases of sexual harassment and assault.

“It’s very painful for me watch more people come forward and speak about being harassed when we have a bill that provides accountability and recourse for the families, like the Guillen family,” said Khawam. “America really needs to speak up and tell Nancy Pelosi that we need this bill passed. It’s unacceptable,” she added.

"We are disappointed there wasn’t a vote," said Col Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a non-profit group advocating for military victims of abuse. "The Fort Hood report is a powerful demonstration of the urgent need for fundamental reform. We look forward to President-elect Biden’s leadership on making this happen," he added.

"We owe it to Vanessa & all survivors"

California congresswoman, Jackie Speier, one of the sponsors of the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill, appealed to her colleagues at a hearing on the Fort Hood report on Wednesday. "The firings at Ft Hood are a good start," she wrote in a tweet. "Leadership knew of the problems, which go beyond sexual assault/harassment, long ago, yet did nothing until it became public. The issues are systemic. Congress must pass my #IAmVanessaGuillén Act. We owe it to Vanessa & all survivors," she added.

Pelosi's office did not respond to a request for comment about action on the bill. After she met the family in September, Pelosi released statement saying she supported the bill, adding: “I gave the family my commitment that this important first step to combatting sexual harassment and assault would come to the House Floor for a vote."

Gloria Guillen said she took heart from the actions taken earlier this week by the Army to relieve from duty or suspend more than a dozen officers at Fort Hood, the base where her daughter was stationed at the time of her murder.

Nonetheless, she was far from satisfied by the Army’s actions. “None of this convinces me," she said. "I'll be convinced when the miserable perpetrators show their faces and they are jailed for life. I don't agree with them being paid or getting to keep their benefits,” she added.

As for Congress, she still hopes they will take action too. "For God's sake, have a conscience, I say to them. Think about what you are doing and pass that law. And take care of the soldiers, protect the soldiers. Not the captains, not commanders, not the generals. Because to me those gentlemen, those are the ones, the majority, are the ones who harm the poor soldiers,” she added.

Despite the delay is passing the bill, Guillen said she still had faith in the political effort backing it, led by House Democrats, Jackie Speier of California and Sylvia Garcia of Texas.

“I believe in them … They are aware what's going on,” she said. “I don't think they'll let us down because … as I told them, the eyes of the nation, and the world, are on the Vanessa Guillen case, and on the Army of the United States, which is a disgrace and a fraud on the people, on this nation."

If, and when, the bill passes, Guillen said she had one final request on behalf of her daughter. “I'd ask the president, as the mother of that girl, I want the flag to be lowered ... in the name of Vanessa Guillén,” she said.

“Because my daughter died and through her death she left a legacy… and she is going to save thousands of young people,” she added.

“She deserves that and much more. What we know is because of her. Nothing was known about what was really happening in the Army. Through the death of my daughter, the abuse, harassment, and murders, came out. And God willing, the #IAmVanessaGuillén bill will be passed," she added.