(NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order that makes sexual harassment an offense in the Uniform Code of Military Justice — a milestone achievement for the family of slain 20-year-old Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen.
“It makes me both happy and sad, because it reminds me of all the work that we had to do to get to this point today,” Guillen’s sister Mayra Guillen told NewsNation on Wednesday. “And it also makes me very proud to see that we’re honoring my sister in the best way possible and that her legacy continues to live on to make not only the world a better place but more specifically the military.”
Under the executive order, military personnel who experience sexual assault or harassment can report the incident to a third party instead of their command.
Biden’s action delivers on a key recommendation from the Independent Review Commission to strengthen the military justice response and prosecute cases of domestic violence, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
It also establishes a more robust response to the nonconsensual distribution of intimate photos and videos, sometimes referred to as revenge porn.
The sentiments behind the executive order are reminiscent of Vanessa Guillen’s case.
“This historic addition to the UCMJ honors the memory of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, whose experience with severe sexual harassment was followed by a brutal murder, catalyzing national attention to the scourge of sexual violence in our military and helping advance bipartisan military justice reform in the 2022 NDAA,” Psaki said during a news briefing on Wednesday.
Vanessa Guillen went missing in April 2020. According to a federal complaint, she was bludgeoned to death at Fort Hood, near Killeen, Texas. Her body was found on July 1, when a fellow soldier, Spc. Aaron Robinson, was confronted by police and died by suicide.
The situation prompted the bipartisan I Am Vanessa Guillen Act.
“Her purpose in this world was to save other people’s lives,” Mayra Guillen said.
Following Vanessa Guillen’s disappearance, the woman’s family said multiple times that she was sexually harassed on the base. The family’s lawyer also said Guillen told her mother that a soldier of a higher rank walked in and watched her while she was showering.
Until Wednesday, the military’s sexual assault response practice lacked confidentiality and was rife with implicit bias and conflict, the Guillen family’s lawyer Natalie Khawam said.
“Before, when somebody like Vanessa would be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted, she would have to report it to her command,” Khawam said. “The problem with that is studies show that the majority of sexual harassment (and) sexual assault actually occur within the chain of command.”
The U.S. Department of Defense received a total 7,816 reports of sexual assault in the 2020 fiscal year. Of those, 6,290 involved allegations from service members reporting incidents that occurred during military service, according to the department. That’s a 1% increase form the year prior.
“Our soldiers, they sign up to serve our country. They sign up to take a bullet,” Khawam said. “They don’t sign up to be harassed or assaulted.”
Members of Vanessa Guillen’s family said they will continue to fight for the ability for victims of military sexual assault or harassment to file claims akin to the kinds of civil suits that employees can file in the workplace.