Vanessa Guillen documentary explores Fort Hood's culture of sexual misconduct The murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén shed a light on the widespread problem of sexual misconduct in the military. A new documentary in English and Spanish looks at what's changed and what work remains.

#IAmVanessaGuillen documentary explores the culture of toxicity at Fort Hood

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Almost 1 in 4 women in the military reports experiencing sexual assault. More than half report harassment, according to the RAND Corporation. Vanessa Guillen was one of those assaulted. In 2020, she went missing from her Fort Hood Army post and was later found dead. Karina Lopez is a survivor of sexual assault who was stationed at the same base, and she is telling her story.



KARINA LOPEZ: I just left that base a month before her. Is this what would have happened to me if I would have stayed?

INSKEEP: Lopez started on social media using the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, which inspired more soldiers to speak up. And now there is a documentary called "#IamVanessaGuillen." A Martinez spoke with the director, Andrea Patino Contreras. And we should warn you - this conversation may not be for all listeners.


You know, what struck me about this - because whenever I've spoken to soldiers, Latinas who decided to enlist, who maybe weren't born in the United States, it made them or helped them feel more American to be in the Army or in the Marines. And then to have that feeling be betrayed when they see something that happened to them and it's not believed - I mean, that's got to be crushing.

ANDREA PATINO CONTRERAS: Absolutely. And, you know, Karina and I had many, many hundreds of conversations over the phone. And one time she said to me, what really triggered my PTSD was the fact that her leadership, the people around her, did not believe her. And that was what triggered all of this - kind of the sense that you are supposed to be supported by these people around you, right? You're supposed to be believed, and she was not. And unfortunately, this is very, very common. And some of the research that has been done says that experiencing military sexual trauma is a higher predictor of PTSD than going to combat.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And we find out Karina was really almost driven to harm herself because she felt she had no allies in her chain of command, that she had no options and that she was alone. And her mom - her mom was terrified. And she actually called someone named Sheldon Moorer (ph), now a retired Army Command sergeant major.


SHELDON MOORER: We talk about never leaving a fallen comrade. Well, she wasn't someone that sustained an injury on the battlefield. And I did leave her. I would not say the Army let her down. I did everything in my power to ensure she was safe. And if I did it, I represented the United States Army.

MARTINEZ: He said that because he cared enough to do something, then by extension, the Army gets credited for doing something about it. What did you make of that reasoning?

CONTRERAS: In our reporting, we found individuals who clearly are good leaders, right? They care for their soldiers. They truly understand the implications that this has. But I think there is - when you zoom out - right? - there is clearly an institutional problem. I don't think a lot of those leaders, you know, said that or acknowledged that.

MARTINEZ: And throughout the film, we hear about the formation of a few very official-sounding programs that seemed to indicate a desire by the military, by the U.S. military, to do right by enlisted victims. For example, 2008, SHARP was established. Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention - sounds like a great name. Tell us how effective it was.

CONTRERAS: Prior to SHARP in 2008, there was not really a clear system to report these cases. So this program kind of implemented that. The criticism of SHARP is that people get trainings - right? - when they join the military about what to do when you're - witness sexual harassment, how to intervene. Someone in the film mentions when he started out a couple decades ago, the questions were like, you know, cover your drinks so you're not taken advantage of, or never go alone by yourself, which really puts the onus and the responsibility on a victim and not on the perpetrator, right? So that was a big criticism.

And I think while it's certainly important and needs to be there, it doesn't answer the question of accountability, and it doesn't answer the question of, well, you have this system in which people can get away with this crime.

MARTINEZ: And, you know, one of the things that feels like a contradiction to me is that the military trains and builds up people to be soldiers, but when it comes to people like Karina, they seem to go into this mode where they try to tear them down. I mean, what have you found that can answer why that happens in the military?

CONTRERAS: You know, I think, A, that's the million-dollar question. I think there's a series of cultural issues here as well of misogyny, of not kind of understanding the gravity of sexual assault, right? The question of the military justice system - right? - like, kind of the way it handles these issues is very different from how they are handled in the civilian world, and that is also, obviously, a major issue that - as you see in the film and very much triggered by the Vanessa Guillen case was - there were some very important and unprecedented changes last year, but that's going to take a long time to change.

MARTINEZ: When it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, what has changed, though? Has anything changed for the better in the military?

CONTRERAS: Yes. So there have been a number of small changes throughout the last couple of decades, really. Last year in particular was pretty big. There was a huge push to take cases of sexual assault out of the chain of command - right? - so that commanders could no longer determine whether to prosecute or not. But sexual harassment remained within kind of the chain of command, as it is right now, and that's kind of a big contradiction because, obviously, harassment is a big predictor of assault, right? So things like that are, I think, what's - some of the changes that now advocates want to push for as they move forward.

MARTINEZ: And with Karina's case, how did that wind up?

CONTRERAS: The prosecutor said they couldn't move forward because they couldn't find a perpetrator. And then she also had a number of reported retaliation and harassment after that. And she also filed a whistleblower complaint with the Pentagon, and that came back in 2020 saying they did not believe her and that there was no reason for them to believe that there was retaliation, which, as we know, is a very common thing to happen. More than 64, 65% of people who reported face retaliation, and a third of women who reported as well are forced out of the military, basically, within a year of them reporting because of how toxic the environment becomes for them.

MARTINEZ: Andrea Patino Contreras directed the Univision Noticias documentary "#IamVanessaGuillen." Andrea, thanks a lot.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, A.


INSKEEP: If you or someone else has experienced sexual harassment or assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Here's the number - 800-656-HOPE. You get 24/7 confidential help.


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