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Family of murdered Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen seek $35m in damages from federal government for sexual harassment, abuse, assault, rape, sodomy and wrongful death

The family of a Texas soldier who was sexually harassed and killed at a military base near Killeen in 2020 filed a lawsuit Friday seeking $35million in damages from the US government.

Vanessa Guillen, 20, was murdered near the military base in 2020 by fellow soldier Aaron Robinson, then 20, who bludgeoned her with a hammer, removed her body from an armory at Fort Hood, Texas, and then dismembered her and buried her remains on April 22 of that year. 

Robinson died as cops moved to arrest him, with his death reported as a suicide. 

An investigation by military officials into the death of Guillen, who was killed by a fellow soldier at US Army base Fort Hood, found that she was also sexually harassed and that leaders failed to take appropriate action. 

The lawsuit describes two instances in which Guillen was harassed during her time as a soldier and Guillen's suicidal thoughts as a result of coping with the harassment, which she told family that she did not report for fear of retaliation.

Guillen's family is seeking damages on the basis of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, rape, sodomy and wrongful death. 

'This will be an opportunity for every victim to feel not only like they have a voice but that they can be made whole,' said Natalie Khawam, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Guillen family.

Vanessa Guillen, 20, was murdered near the military base in 2020 by fellow soldier Aaron Robinson, then 20, who bludgeoned her with a hammer

Robinson (pictured) then dismembered her and buried her remains on April 22 with his married lover Cecily Aguilar, 22

The lawsuit follows a decision on Thursday by a three-judge panel from the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco stating that an Army colonel could proceed with a lawsuit against a former Air Force General over a sexual assault allegation. 

The court found that a law barring service members from seeking damages over injuries during service did not apply.

Guillen was declared missing in April 2020. Her remains were found that July, when the soldier accused of killing Guillen died by suicide following a confrontation with officers. His married lover Cecily Aguilar, 22, also faces charges for allegedly helping Robinson dispose of Guillen's remains.

Aguilar was charged with tampering with evidence after she told investigators that she helped her boyfriend bury her body in April of last year.

'He told her he was worried about getting in trouble for violating the Army's fraternization rules since Aguilar was still married to another soldier and he hit Guillen in the head with a hammer,' investigators said.

Aguilar, for her part, told authorities that Robinson 'would go into moods in which he would not be his normal self and have a "tic."'

Her family (pictured: her sisters) is seeking $35million in damage over her sexually harassment, rape, and wrongful death 

She also allegedly told one of her fellow inmates that Robinson 'snapped, that he had an image in his head. He saw himself [kill her] and wanted to do it.'

Aguilar at first claimed she was at home with Robinson the night Guillen disappeared but has since allegedly confessed to being there after Guillen's body was found.

Investigators learned Robinson was the last person to speak to Guillen, despite telling police that Guillen left an arms room and he went to be with Aguilar, who backed up his claim.

Investigators later discovered that Robinson's phone pinged in Belton, Texas, by a bridge near the Leon River in the early morning hours shortly after Vanessa vanished.

When they went to the location, they found a burn pile, including a tough box, an item Guillen had been seen with earlier by eyewitnesses.

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Investigators noted that Robinson and Aguilar shared multiple phone calls the night of Guillen's disappearance, which Aguilar said was because she couldn't find her phone.

On June 30, hours after investigators discovered Guillen's dismembered body, Army officials at Fort Hood detained Robinson.

In April 2021 - a year after her body was found - the Army released a report about the officers who ignored Guillen's sexual harassment complaints. The fallen soldier had verbally reported it at least twice in 2019. 

The report took months to come, which the family's lawyer Natalie Khawam criticized. 

Aguilar, a civilian, has also been charged in Guillen's death as she has been accused of helping Robinson hide the body 

'We knew she was being sexually harassed,' she told CBS News. 'We knew that people were lying. We knew she was falsely accounted for. We knew all of this. Why it took so many months to come out with this, I don't know.' 

Guillen's death and claims by her family that she was harassed and assaulted at the Texas base sparked a social media movement of former and active service members who came forward about their own experiences in the military with the hashtag #IAmVaessaGuillen. 

State and federal lawmakers have since passed legislation in honor of Guillen that removed some authority from commanders and gave survivors more options to report.

14 fired or suspended at Fort Hood: Army acts after investigation sparked by Vanessa Guillen's death finds 'chronic failures that fostered widespread pattern of violence including murder, sexual assaults and harassment' at base 

The Army fired or suspended 14 officers and soldiers at the Fort Hood base in Texas after a damning investigation uncovered chronic leadership failures that contributed to a widespread pattern of violence including murder, sexual assaults and harassment.  

In July, a panel of five civilians was formed to investigate the base's command culture and handling of sexual harassment cases and disappearances and those results were shared publicly in December.

'The investigation after Vanessa Guillen's murder found Fort Hood has a command climate that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault,' then Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a press conference in December.

He said the issues plaguing Fort Hood are 'directly related to leadership failures.' 

Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who was left in charge of the base when Guillen was killed, was fired from his post. 

Army leaders had already delayed Efflandt's planned transfer to Fort Bliss, where he was supposed to take over leadership of the 1st Armored Division, due to the investigations into the base. 

The base commander, Army Lt. Gen. Pat White, will not face any administrative action because he was deployed to Iraq as the commander there for much of the year.  

The leadership of Guillen's unit, Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment were also fired.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, 1st Cavalry Division commanding general and command sergeant major, were both suspended. 

Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who was left in charge of the base when Guillen was killed, was fired following the review

Suspended: Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater (left) and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny (right), both of the 1st Cavalry Division, were suspended following the review

Fired: Col. Ralph Overland (left), the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp (right), both of whom were in charge of Guillen's unit, were fired

Their suspension is pending the outcome of a new Army Regulation (AR) 15-6 investigation of 1st Cavalry Division's command climate and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program. 

The names of the battalion level and below commanders and leaders who received administrative action were not released. 

McCarthy said the panel published nine main findings and 70 recommendations that the Army is accepting to correct the command culture at the base.  

The panel said they made an effort to talk to women in every division at the base, especially those in Guillen's unit. 

The panel conducted 647 individual interviews on the base. 

'Of the 503 women we interviewed [in the investigation], we discovered 93 credible accounts of sexual assault. Of those only 59 were reported,' said Queta Rodriguez, a member of the independent review panel.

'And we also found 217 unreported accounts of sexual harassment. Of those only half were reported. What we discovered was over the course of those interviews, the lack of confidence in the system effected the reports of those incidents,' she added.

The independent review found that the Army's Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP) failed to curb sexual assault and harassment on bases due to structural failures.

Panelists said there was a lack of training, resourcing and staffing at the SHARP office on Fort Hood.

It also found that the command climate failed to practice the program's core values below the brigade level, which led to less trust in the program.  

McCarthy ordered for the review in mid-July to find the 'root causes' of sexual harassment and violence on the base and whether the command culture and climate reflects the Army's values. 

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Of the 31 deaths at the base in 2020, while some where deemed accidents, five were homicides and 10 were suicides.

'Soldiers assaulting and harassing other Soldiers is contrary to Army values and requires a dramatic change in culture,' Chris Swecker, the independent review panel chair, said. 

'There was a founded fear that the confidentiality of the [sexual assault] reporting process would be compromised. It took so long to get an adjudication that people never saw an adjudication,' he added.

He said the panel's recommendations were designed to 'address deeply dysfunctional norms and regain soldiers' trust,' he added.  

The panel offered new policies for the Army to implement including a restructure of the SHARP Program at Fort Hood, which they said was ineffective at the base.

The panel advised for the creation of full time Victim Advocates comprised of a hybrid of civilian and uniformed personnel and the creation of a SHARP Program Office track to monitor the life-cycle and aging of each sexual assault and harassment case and prepare a quarterly report with that information. 

They also suggested new measures to better track soldier disappearances. 

The panel advised for the creation of an Army-wide set of protocols for 'failure to report' scenarios in the critical first 24 hours of a soldier's absence.

Under the new policy commanders will be required to list service members as absent-unknown for up to 48 hours and must do everything to locate them to determine whether their absence in voluntary before declaring them AWOL, or absent without leave.

It also includes new guidance on steps to classify soldiers as deserters.

McCarthy said the People First Task Force has been created to study the committee's recommendations and map out a plan to enact them.  

Fort Hood Commanding General Lt. Gen. Pat White said: 'There's some candid feedback on the culture here. What was made abundantly clear is we have to fix our culture, particularly with sexual assault and harassment.'

He said changes are already underway at the base and he has set aside more than four million hours for junior leaders to work on team building and get to know their soldiers. 

He said that the base was given notice of the firings and had time to prepare a 'compassion team' that includes a lawyer, a public affairs representative, a chaplain, behavioral health representative and a cyber awareness expert.

The five members of the independent review committee are Chris Swecker, Jonathan Harmon, Carrie Ricci, Queta Rodriguez and Jack White, who together have a combined 75 years of experience as active-duty military and law-enforcement personnel.   

Chris Swecker is the former assistant director of FBI's Criminal Investigative Division and Jonathan Harmon is a civilian trial attorney who represented Fortune 500 companies and a combat veteran who served in the Gulf War.

Carrie Ricci is 21-year Army veteran and assistant general counsel for the Department of Agriculture, Queta Rodriguez is 20-year Marines veteran and regional director for the non-profit FourBlock, and Jack White a partner at the law firm Fluet Huber Hoang in McLean, Virginia who is a West Point graduate and served five years on active duty.

Read more:
  • Family of slain Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén seeking $35 million in damages - CBS News
  • U.S. Army Forces Command completes investigation of Fort Hood leader actions | Article | The United States Army

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