By LUIS MARTINEZ and BENJAMIN SIEGEL, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill named for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen Wednesday that supporters believe could lead to reforms that will make it easier for victims to report sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.
The bill is named after the 20-year-old whose disappearance and alleged murder by a fellow soldier at Fort Hood triggered a significant response among victims of sexual assault and harassment in the military after the family alleged that she had experienced sexual harassment at the installation but was hesitant to step forward with the allegations.
A large number of sexual assault and sexual harassment victims stepped forward using the viral hasthag, #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN, to describe similar experiences where they did not report incidents because of the concerns they had about the military’s reporting system.
Army criminal investigators were unable to prove that sexual harassment played a role in Guillen’s case, but the Army continues to investigate the family’s allegations.
Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., are the main sponsors for the bill that would reform how the military deals with sexual harassment in the ranks.
“The status quo is unacceptable. And we’re not going to tolerate it anymore,” Speier said at a news conference held outside the Capitol to unveil the proposed legislation.
“While we can never bring Vanessa back, we honor her memory with this bill,” she added.
Mullin said it was the right time to implement the reforms called for in the bill, but “unfortunately, it took Vanessa’s death to make that timing right.”
“All of us have families and it became very personal to us, Mullin said.
“We’re suffering a crisis of sexual harassment and assault in the U.S. military,” said Lupe Guillen, Vanessa’s Guillen’s sister, who was among other family members on hand for the news conference.
“Nothing justifies what is happening to people like Vanessa,” she said. “Vanessa Guillen fought for us. And now it’s time to fight for her.”
The proposed legislation calls for third-party investigations of military sexual misconduct claims, a move that would sidestep the current system where unit commanders have a say as to whether a case should proceed to a criminal prosecution.
It also calls for making sexual harassment, which is currently considered misconduct, to be listed as a separate crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Because they are under different policies, the reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases in the military are handled differently by the U.S. military
In early 2019, the Pentagon announced that it would make sexual harassment a crime, but the process to make that a reality is still underway and will soon be in effect according to a Pentagon spokesperson.
The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office to review how the military services each handle the cases of missing service members.
Following the news conference Guillen’s family met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who promised them that the bill would come to a full vote on the House floor.
“Justice is needed for Vanessa and for the many service members facing an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our armed forces, too often in the shadows,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“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, but the Congress will not stop until we have finally, fully ended this epidemic — in the military, in the workplace and in all places,” said Pelosi.
how various military branches handle missing servicemembers, and make sexual harrasment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Supporters of the bill hope Democratic leaders will schedule the vote for Sept. 30 — what would have been Vanessa Guillen’s 21st birthday.
“The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act is long overdue,” retired Col. Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, said in a statement.
His organization has long advocated for removing the chain of command from prosecutorial decision-making.
“Military brass has given us no reason to believe they will address the sexual assault epidemic in the military on their own,” his statement continued. “The time is now for Congress to act — our service members cannot continue to wait.”
Speier said it was time for Congress to force the military’s hand to carry out additional reforms to the reporting of sexual assaults and sexual harassment.
“For the longest time the military was successful at suggesting that somehow if you were challenging their chain of command, their ability to hold everyone accountable that that was somehow unpatriotic,” she said.
“What is unpatriotic is that we have a dead, young service member who didn’t have faith in a system — and I think over the years as we have focused on this issue, spent so much money on the issue — and recognized that nothing has changed,’ said Speier. “The fact that military brass would come to the Armed Services committee and say that they have zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment started to not ring true. “
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