Earlier this week, a story that’s close to my heart popped up on Netflix and catapulted into the streaming service’s global top-10 list. An arresting documentary that tells the tragedy of the U.S. Army soldier Venessa Guillén’s sexual harassment, murder, and the following cover-up at Fort Hood’s squadron headquarters, “I Am Vennessa Guillén” is an important reminder that we not only need to keep Venessa’s story alive—we must continue to fight for broad change.
Keeping Vanessa’s Story Alive
Reforms to help support stronger mental health measures, proactive programs that educate and raise awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence, and high-level changes in how the military manages reports of assault and violence are all still needed.
Vanessa’s family, including her sisters Lupe and Mayra Guillén, have worked diligently since Venessa’s murder to advocate for reform and give voice to the many other silenced victims and injustices in the military both before and following Vanessa’s death.
In a statement to PEOPLE magazine, Lupe said, “I believe it is fundamental to share Vanessa’s story with society due to the stigmas surrounding sexual violence and the ongoing femicides happening around the world. To set a reminder to young women and everyone to use their voices for change to be established.”
How Venessa’s Murder and Her Family’s Fight Have Fueled Change
Over the past year, we’ve seen important reforms implemented, each one informed by advocacy efforts following Venessa’s death. For example:
- Vanessa’s murder and the work led by her family have initiated reforms that now make military sexual assault a crime.
- New Military reforms addressing assault reports are moving the decision-making power to pursue prosecution away from the chain of command and unit commanders within the military and instead putting that power in the hands of independent military lawyers.
- Important legislation included the National Defense Authorization Act (passed late last year).
- Provisions from the “I am Vanessa Guillén Act” went into effect on January 1, 2022.
- New investigations into military culture and behaviors are ongoing at the Fort Hood base and around the country.
Why Talking about Sexual Harassment and Assault Is Important
Although painful to discuss and hear, speaking out about sexual violence is essential. As the CDC points out, having these tough conversations can help to raise awareness and hopefully prevent negative behaviors before they start.
- Promote positive social norms that raise awareness, call out harassment as a problem, and proactively protect against violence.
- Support education programs and teach skills that prevent violence before it starts.
- Create safer environments and promote healthier cultures for women in the military.
- Strengthen military leaders to enact change and lead by example with positive behaviors (and hold them accountable, if they fail to do so)
- Promote and financially support victim-centered services and educational resources that help to prevent sexual harassment and violence
Honoring Venessa’s Legacy
Over the past two years, several politicians have been fighting alongside the Guillén family for military reform. Two of the loudest voices have been Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California). Both women are featured in the documentary. And, as Speier says in the emotional film,
“This was not one of those cases the military could sweep under the rug.”
Mayra adds, “[Vanessa’s death] sheds light on a very big problem that a lot of people will be talking about, and the reforms that are now in place, I hope they’re for the better of everyone.”
In a statement Netflix released about the documentary, they shared, “[This] film really captures an intimate look at a family, in the most tragic time of their lives, making the exceptional decision to fight to improve conditions in the military for the greater good. They’ve honored Vanessa’s legacy in the most beautiful way and are a prime example of what love, family, bravery, and courage mean. “
“I Am Vanessa Guillén”, directed and produced by Christy Wegener, is currently available to stream on Netflix. Be sure to visit netflix.com/iamvanessaGuillén to learn more.
For More Information
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE for 24/7 confidential help.
Read more about Vanessa and recent military reforms in my blog archive. I invite you to reach out any time and share your own story or ask questions. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me any time.