“I am Vanessa Guillen” is a Netflix documentary that unfolds the story of a 20-year-old woman who was murdered on a US army base in Texas. Initially, she was reported missing, but it was later discovered that a fellow soldier had murdered her. Vanessa’s family chose to fight against the system and the lack of investigation and support from the Army for justice. Vanessa’s sisters take a huge step in fighting through the struggles their sister faced and protesting to ensure no other person shall have to go through the same pain.
Who Was Vanessa Guillen?
Vanessa was 18 years old when she enlisted in the Army; it was her childhood dream to serve in the Army. She grew up in Houston, Texas, with Gloria (her mother), Mayra (her eldest sister), and Lupe (her younger sister) and was engaged to Juan Cruz, her long-term boyfriend. Vanessa completed her boot camp at Fort Jackson and, after her graduation, was stationed at Fort Hood, an army base near her home.
On April 22, 2020, Vanessa received a message on her day off to report to the base. A few hours later, her phone was unreachable. Her family members and her fiancé were trying to reach her, but there was no response. Mayra called the staff sergeant, asking him about Vanessa’s whereabouts, and he told her that no one had seen her since morning. Her family and her co-workers all sensed something was wrong. After the phone call, Mayra decided to visit the camp in person. She reached out to Juan, and he accompanied her as well. Mayra describes how the officers at Fort Hood were shady and weren’t answering her questions. Fort Hood is a huge base; it has one of the largest military postings in the United States. It doesn’t have a good reputation; it has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in any military base. Multiple cases of mass shootings, sexual harassment, smuggling immigrants, and missing and dead soldiers have been associated with Fort Hood. Vanessa’s mother narrates that Vanessa once told her about sexual harassment cases at the base, though she had hidden the fact that she, too, was being harassed. Later, Vanessa confessed that a sergeant had sexually assaulted her.
Heather Osbourne is a journalist who was working on the press release about Vanessa’s disappearance. Heather reached out to Mayra, and Mayra asked for her help in finding out more information, but Heather was denied any answers. Vanessa’s case was then handed over to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). Heather describes the investigators in Vanessa’s case as inexperienced and understaffed. Mayra narrates her interaction with one of the soldiers, who laughed in her face when she questioned him regarding Vanessa’s disappearance; the soldier was Robinson, an armorer at the base, and Vanessa had been an arms mechanic. Tay Hightower, Vanessa’s friend and co-worker, reached out to Robinson, and he told Tay that he had sent Vanessa to the motor pool. Later, Tay handed over Robinson’s number to CID.
Find Vanessa Guillen
Mayra had posted about Vanessa’s disappearance on Twitter, and her post got a lot of attention. Vanessa’s friends and people around the globe started re-sharing the post; her case also got media attention. Her family started protesting in the first week of May and got huge support from the community. The protesters questioned the authorities and asked for justice and answers. In June 2020, Mayra started searching for a military lawyer, someone who had experience working with military cases, and she found Natalie Khawam’s contact. Natalie had military clients all over the world and was highly experienced. She started doing her own investigation and reached out to EquuSearch, an organization dedicated to finding missing people. A public statement was released by Fort Hood’s commander regarding Vanessa’s disappearance. A search mission was led by the military police as well as military members.
#IamVanessaGuillen Sylvia Garcia
Mayra posted a message regarding Vanessa being sexually harassed at the base, and it went viral. The #IamVanessaGullen became a voice for so many soldiers who had been harassed in the military and decided to share their stories. The number of protestors grew all over the world, in Egypt, Mexico, and different parts of the United States. Scott Efflanot, the commander of Fort Hood Army Base, denied all the accusations made in Vanessa’s case. Damon Phelps, CID’s senior special agent, released a statement stating that an in-depth investigation had been performed and no traces of sexual harassment were found. The Army was covering up for its actions, calling out the harassment allegation as foul play.
A few days later, on her birthday, Mayra received a call from Tim Miller, the founder of EquuSearch, informing her that Vanessa’s dead body had been found. She was torn apart and burst into tears. Vanessa’s body was found abandoned in a trashy place; she had been murdered. The investigations revealed that Aaron Robinson, a fellow soldier, had murdered her on the base with a hammer; he had been previously contacted by Mayra and Tay. Cecily Aguliar, a 22-year-old woman, was also involved in Vanessa’s disappearance. The couple took the body out near the Leon River, cut it into pieces, burned it, and then buried the body parts in three different locations. Mayra spoke with a representative from the Army, and she recalls how the whole investigation was thrown at her face without any sympathy.
Heather narrates that the day Vanessa’s body was discovered, Robinson was held for breaking COVID protocols, and the Army failed to let the person in charge of Robinson know that he was also suspected of Vanessa’s murder. Robinson had his cellphone and found out about the discovery of Vanessa’s body parts. The soldier who was in charge somehow also let Robinson escape; Robinson later shot himself. This was a major fallout on behalf of the Army, but no action was taken against the authority. The Guillen family was furious at the Army’s lack of accountability. Cecily confessed her actions as a result of fear as she was held at gunpoint by Robinson, and the court dismissed her allegations. A few months later, the Army released a statement confirming that Vanessa Guillen had been harassed, confirming something Vanessa’s family had claimed for a long time. Reports suggested that one of Vanessa’s superiors had approached her during her field training exercise while she was indulged in some personal hygiene in the secluded woods. Vanessa told her friends and her superior that she was afraid of being retaliated against. The Army didn’t provide any names, but it is known that Vanessa was harassed by two supervisors, and one of them is still serving at Fort Hood.
I Am Vanessa Guillen Bill
The military criminal system is different from the civil system, the military uses a privacy act to keep all the information confidential, and the families get no answers. The commander takes all the necessary actions and passes out all the judgments. The Guillen family wasn’t going to let this fallout in the system be a barrier to Vanessa’s justice. They decided to propose a bill in the system. Mayra had never been away from her family, and with Vanessa gone, her mother was alone; Lupe was only sixteen years old, but Mayra decided to fight for the bill and bring home justice for Vanessa. In August 2020, Vanessa’s family met with President Donald Trump and proposed the bill to him, asking for his support and telling him how important it was. Lupe, Vanessa’s youngest sister, addressed the public that day; she even wore the shoes Vannesa got for her; she even got praise from the president for being outspoken and courageous. They reached out to Congresswoman Jackie Speier to cosponsor the bill. Jackie introduced the first piece of legislation in 2011 to deal with sexual assault in the military. The military resisted the bill, stating that it provoked the power and authority of the commanders in the military, but Vanessa’s case was strong enough to provoke a change. The Guillen family was promised a vote on the bill on September 30, also Vanessa’s birthday, but it was called off. The bill died without a vote; in the American system, every year, a bill that fails dies, which means that the Guillen family will have to start a fresh approach to placing the bill next year.
After the presidential election under Biden’s administration, Mayra and Natalie started working on the bill again. Mayra and Natalie reached out to congressmen, asking for their votes. They also reached out to several senators and leaders to highlight the importance of the issue. Every time Mayra spoke about the incident, she would have flashbacks, but she put a strong face forward to keep fighting for her sister. Lupe was still grieving for her sister, and with all the hustle of getting the bill approved, she was also emotionally worn out. She recalls her memories of playing soccer with her sister and how she wouldn’t be able to play soccer anymore. The whole incident makes us question what Vanessa or her family members did to deserve such pain. Even the Army doesn’t have any answers for them. New York senator, Kristen Gillibrand, had proposed a much more expansive bill for the victims of sexual assault in the military, but it would raise a conflict in the vote between the Gillibrand bill and the Vanessa bill. Natalie and Myra reached out to Senator Gillibrand in hopes of a combined bill. On December 15, 2021, the I am Vanessa Guillen Act got passed in the House; the Act stated legislation that would handle military sexual assault cases to an independent prosecutor outside the military chain of command, making a historic reform in American history. The Guillen family to date doesn’t know what happened to Vanessa but has some sort of relief knowing that now justice will be served. They have made an effort not to let go of Vanessa’s death in vain; this has stood their ground and brought justice to her. Although the bill still holds enormous authority with the commander, it is still the start of a new system.
“I Am Vanessa Guillen” is a 2022 documentary film directed by Christy Wegener.