The new documentary on Netflix, “I am Vanessa Guillen,” is a nice heartfelt watch that equally satisfies as much as it makes one feel for the tragedy. The film follows the events of Vanessa Guillen, a US Army soldier who goes missing in 2020, and the efforts of her family in trying to bring about legal changes following the abhorrent incident. While Vanessa’s story is no doubt very gut-wrenching, it is also inspiring to think of what the Guillens actually achieved and the toil they went through to do so. “I am Vanessa Guillen” maintains that spirit and is an interesting watch overall.
Ever since her very childhood, Vanessa was extremely determined in whatever she did, and one of the things she genuinely wanted to become was part of the US Army. Although she was born and brought up in Houston, Vanessa’s parents were both Mexican immigrants who had settled in the US owing to their profession. Although her mother, Gloria, felt that her daughter’s ambition of joining the army was more of a childhood dream, Vanessa really had her eyes set on this and was ready to defy all odds to fulfill this dream. As many around her, including her close friends and sisters, reminded Vanessa, she was not only a woman but was of Hispanic ethnicity, making her being selected for the US Army an extremely difficult ordeal. But the woman, a young adult at the time, was dead serious about it and enlisted herself for service in the army as soon as she turned eighteen. After completing her boot camp training period at Fort Jackson, Vanessa was stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. She and her entire family were happy that she had achieved her dream and would also be serving close to home in the same state of Texas. All was well as Vanessa joined the service as a weapons repairer, but things started to change gradually over time when she started to tell her mother and older sister that everything was not as good in the army as it seemed from the outside.
In April 2020, many members of the army were being sent off duty due to the spreading COVID-19 virus outbreak, as Vanessa’s elder sister Mayra recalls, but on April 22, Vanessa was asked to report for duty at Fort Hood. In a devastating turn of fate, this day was the last time Vanessa was seen by her family, and by anyone for that matter. While her family, friends, and even fiancée kept trying to get in touch with the woman, Vanessa did not reply to messages or pick up any calls. When Mayra called the base to inquire about her sister, the man in charge only informed her that Vanessa had been missing since around 1 in the afternoon on that day. As more time passed, Mayra and Vanessa’s fiancé, Juan, grew more concerned and decided to visit the army base to find answers about her whereabouts. More days passed with no trace of Vanessa, and the officials at the base were initially reluctant to cooperate either. However, owing to Mayra and her family’s efforts, the matter soon gained traction on social media and news channels, and protests were held against the army’s lackluster efforts. The US Army base at Fort Hood was already notorious for incidents of sexual assault and misbehavior and had a terrible reputation for having a strong command culture, meaning that members had to abide by the laws and orders set by their higher officials, even in the worst of scenarios. The base had already had two instances of mass shootings, countless mysterious deaths of soldiers, and even a sex racket scandal. It was sadly no wonder that Vanessa herself had also told her mother that she had faced sexual misbehavior at the place, along with some other female members, but there was no way she could take any action. While all of this was reported to army personnel by the family, the army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) conducted an investigation and denied any findings of sexual assault. This investigation also took place almost two months after Vanessa had gone missing when the commander of the base appeared in a public video saying that they had started a search to find the missing woman. An independent private search group had also been employed by the Guillen family by this time, and it was finally on June 30 that the remains of the woman were found at a spot by the Leon River. Vanessa had been murdered by a hammer strike on the back of her head, and her body had then been dismembered and burned before being buried at the spot.
The identity of the prime suspect was soon revealed, and it happened to be a specialist-ranked soldier by the name of Aaron Robinson, who had also been the last person to have seen Vanessa. While he had told the interrogators earlier that he had met Vanessa inside the base for some work and had then parted ways, more incriminating information was found from his girlfriend, Cecily Anne Aguilar. It was Aguilar who told the investigators that Robinson had murdered Vanessa inside the base and had then taken her help to dismember the body. Aguilar was part of the process, too, when the young woman’s body was butchered into pieces and then cremated and buried. While the army police quickly arrested Cecily, Aaron was already being held at the time for having broken COVID protocols. However, the army officials failed to inform the individual holding him that he was also the prime suspect in the ongoing murder case. As Robinson was allowed to keep his phone with himself, his girlfriend sent him news articles about the discovery of the remains, and Robinson managed to free himself from custody. Following this, he tried getting away from the army base, and when the police caught up with him, Aaron Robinson pulled out a gun and killed himself. It was now impossible to bring Vanessa’s murderer to justice, and the only person punishable was Cecily Aguilar.
It was most possibly because of incidents of sexual harassment and her complaints against them that Vanessa Guillen lost her life. While the US Army initially kept saying that it had found no evidence of any sexual harassment, in this case, it was later confirmed in May 2021 that Vanessa had indeed filed two verbal complaints of sexual harassment in 2019. These records mentioned that a superior official had once approached her for an act of threesome, and then this same superior approached her later when Vanessa was performing personal hygiene in the woods during a field training exercise. Both these complaints had no effect whatsoever, and instead, Vanessa had told her friends and other superiors that she was afraid of retaliation against her due to these complaints. Although the army continued and still continues to deny that this official was Aaron Robinson, everyone else is pretty sure that this was indeed the case. Vanessa had earlier complained about Robinson’s character, and the man also had an earlier record of sexual assault against a different woman soldier. But confirming that such incidents had happened between the man and Vanessa would confirm that her death was due to a case of sexual harassment, and this would bring more flak to the already tainted reputation of Fort Hood.
The official motive stated in this case is not something that the documentary film mentions, but as presented in May of 2022, it says that Vanessa had seen Aguilar’s picture on Robinson’s phone, and the man was scared that she would report him for this since Aguilar was the estranged wife of another soldier in the base and the army has strict rules against fraternization. It was for this, Aguilar supposedly said, that Robinson had smashed a hammer against Vanessa’s head, killing her and burying his secret affair with her.
Following her disappearance and the discovery of Vanessa’s fate, her mother and sisters decided to do their best to ensure that such horrible incidents did not happen to anyone else ever again. The problem in cases like this is that US laws pertaining to the army support the chain of command that is part of the military. To put it simply, this meant that no matter what case was being filed and fought pertaining to members of the army, it was the commander who had the utmost power to decide what was going to happen and how the investigation into such a case would be conducted. This would, almost always, ensure that real perpetrators of crimes got away and sexual assault and harassment in the army became a very common happening. The crucial decision of whether to prosecute someone and actually hold the criminal case was also taken by the commander, who would, more often than not, dismiss cases to keep the reputation of the army and their base intact. This law was what the Guillen family essentially wanted to change, making sure that perpetrators were held responsible for their acts even if they were part of the army. Vanessa’s elder sister hired Natalie Khawam as their attorney, as she had varied experience in representing people wronged by members of the army. Together with Natalie’s help, Mayra Guillen met with erstwhile President Donald Trump at the Oval Office, and he promised them that the Department of Justice and the FBI were doing their best to investigate the matter and that he and his administration would look to the end of such injustice. In public appeals to the masses, too, Mayra said that their pursuit for justice for her sister was not an issue to be made about politics or race, things that were immensely in public conversation at the time, but that it was on the very basic humanitarian grounds.
In the meantime, Mayra and her younger sister Lupe also kept a close eye on another development with regard to the only perpetrator being convicted in this case, Cecily Aguilar. The woman was now taking back all the confessions she had earlier made and was stating that Aaron Robinson had held her at gunpoint when she had helped him dismember and cremate Vanessa’s body. Cecily was basically trying to claim that she had been forced into committing the acts for which she was being charged, but the court decided otherwise and refused to acquit her. However, as “I am Vanessa Guillen” states at its very end, Cecily Aguilar’s trial date is being repeatedly delayed, and she has been pleading not guilty for all this time.
Ever since Vanessa had gone missing and accounts of her sexual harassment complaints were put up on social media, a campaign called “#IAmVanessaGuillen” started to trend on Twitter, with innumerable people putting up their own accounts of having faced sexual harassment while working in the army or by members of the army. Support for Vanessa’s family’s cause started to come from outside of the United States too, and Vanessa Guillen has by now become almost a symbol of victims of army misdemeanors. Mayra and her team were rooting for a bill titled “I am Vanessa Guillen,” which would hand over the responsibility of conducting investigations and court trials for cases related to members of the army to an independent third-party prosecutor, taking away the power from the army commander. While they faced hardships and had to put in much effort to steamroll the concern into the Senate, they found supporters in important and powerful people along the way too. Finally, in January 2022, lawmakers agreed to hand cases of military sexual assault over to an independent prosecutor, taking away power from the military’s chain of command. The new president, Joe Biden, signed the executive order making sexual harassment a recognized offense in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While people like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who herself has been trying for years to get rid of the autonomy of the military chain of command in such cases, have stated that this new law only effectively gives an independent prosecutor the decision of whether to prosecute or not, it is still agreed that this first step is historical too.
The tragic murder of their sister in such an unjust manner also hugely affected the lives of the Guillen sisters. Lupe had to eventually step away from the court cases and protests to return to her education. She has graduated from high school since then and now hopes to pursue a career in journalism. On the other side, Mayra’s wholehearted efforts in trying to stop the authorities from sweeping her sister’s case under the rug have made her interested in full-time activism, and she now hopes to enter a life of politics in the near future. Sadly, cases of army or military injustice, especially against women, are not uncommon in any part of the world, but stories like that of Vanessa Guillen probably also inspire the belief that evil can indeed be fought and changed one step at a time.
“I am Vanessa Guillen” is a 2022 Crime Documentary film directed by Christy Wegener.
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