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Removing sexual harassment from military chain-of-command

It’s been two years since the brutal murder of Army SPC Vanessa Guillén, and mere months since Congress came together to pass monumental and sweeping bipartisan legislation to ensure cases of sexual assault, murder, kidnapping, and other serious crimes are taken out of the chain of command. To some, that time has felt like an eternity. For others, it’s passed in the blink of an eye. For me, it’s proved that Congress is capable of breaking through the partisan politics that paralyzes us if we have the willpower to do so. On this anniversary of Vanessa’s untimely death, I’m here to say that we have more to do. 

History was made with the passage of last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It not only included my provisions to remove cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and other special victim offenses from the victim’s and assailant’s chain of command, it created new, independent military prosecutors. These prosecutors, known as Special Trial Counsels, will take effect on Dec. 27, 2023. They alone will make decisions regarding whether to prosecute these crimes – not the commanders. And the civilian leaders to whom they answer are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and are accountable to Congress and, most importantly, the public. 

Also included in the NDAA was my provision to make sexual harassment a standalone offense in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Shockingly and wrongfully, sexual harassment was not included in the jurisdiction of the independent military prosecutors. That must change, and that is why my House colleagues and I have introduced the bipartisan Sexual Harassment Independent Investigations and Prosecutions (SHIIP) Act, and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is joining us by introducing her companion legislation in the Senate as well. 

Specifically, our bill would move prosecutorial decisions for sexual harassment from commanders to the new special trial counsel so that independent military attorneys decide which sex-related offenses go to court-martial, and require that the new, independent sexual harassment investigators created last year are outside of the chain of command of the victim and the perpetrator and are trained in investigating sexual harassment. 

Ensuring that sexual harassment investigations and prosecution decisions are moved out of the chain of command are critical to addressing so many cases like Vanessa’s. We know that Vanessa was sexually harassed by a superior prior to her disappearance and gruesome dismemberment. We know that her command was aware of this harassment yet did nothing, and she talked to her family about it. We know that countless other victims of sexual assault in the military, many of whom have shared with me their painful experiences, also suffered sexual harassment. We also know that sexual harassment is one of the most underreported offenses—only 1 percent are formally reported. We know that as long as sexual harassment cases continue to be handled through the military chain of command, victim’s voices will be stifled and overwhelmed by a system stacked against them. And we know that as long that occurs, the possibility of those offenses leading to other, deadlier crimes will continue to threaten our military’s readiness and morale, and the lives of our brave servicemembers. 

When the NDAA was passed in December, my provisions were hailed by military leadership, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, victim advocacy groups, families and friends of victims, and survivors. I will forever remember Vanessa’s sister, Mayra Guillén, saying, “I can have some peace tonight.” 

I also will forever carry with me the raw pain, anguish, and betrayal felt by her, her parents, and her sister. Etched on my heart and in my mind are the words shared with me by survivors, including one survivor who told me she was prepared to fight the enemy outside the wire, she was not prepared for the enemy lurking within. 

The pain that Vanessa’s death unleashed throughout the military reverberates just as strongly today as it did two years ago. Also as steadfast is my dedication and promise to ensure that no other family suffers what the Guillén family has endured, and that no other servicemember suffers Vanessa’s tragic and avoidable fate. I call on my colleagues in the House and Senate to join me in that promise and to ensure that it is kept, and that Vanessa’s proud legacy and memory are honored by passing of the SHIIP Act. 

Jackie Speier represents the 14th District of California and is chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. 

Tags Mazie Hirono Vanessa Guillen

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