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Vanessa Guillén film shows quest for justice: "People won't remain silent anymore"

CBS News 11/18/2022 Analisa Novak
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It was the tragic story of Specialist Vanessa Guillén that inspired Staff Sgt. Kacie Suchanek to go public with allegations of sexual assault by another member of the Air National Guard. 

"When it happened to me, she was the first thing that popped up in my mind," Suchanek told CBS News. "I understood on a deeper level the pain she went through."

Guillén's disappearance and murder in 2020 launched a movement in which thousands of service members who experienced sexual trauma in the military shared their experiences on social media using the #IAmVanessaGuillen hashtag. 

It's also the title of a new Netflix documentary that goes deeper into the Guillén family's quest for justice and effort to reform the way the military handles sexual assault cases. As of Friday morning, "I Am Vanessa Guillén" was among some of the top title searches in the U.S.

Guillén's family knew something was wrong on April 22, 2020, when they could not get in contact with Vanessa who was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. Finally, two months later, her body was discovered. Officials said she was killed by fellow Specialist Aaron Robinson, who fled the base and later died by suicide. A second suspect, the estranged wife of a former Fort Hood soldier, was also arrested.

In the documentary, the Guilléns and some close friends talk about how Vanessa had told them that she had been sexually harassed in Fort Hood by her superior. 

Mayra Guillén, Vanessa's oldest sister, told CBS News that prior to her sister joining the Army, she had no idea that the military had a history of problems with sexual assault and harassment. But after her sister's disappearance and murder, she began to read the stories of women using the #IAmVanessaGuillen hashtag and realized the severity of the issue. 

A mural of Vanessa Guillen in Austin on July 6, 2020. / Credit: Sergio Flores / Getty © Provided by CBS News A mural of Vanessa Guillen in Austin on July 6, 2020. / Credit: Sergio Flores / Getty

"Once we found out what was going on with Vanessa, it all just slowly started opening up. We kept reading more and more, it was already sad to read some of the stories, the way things were done to victims is just, you would think that... you are supposed to be in the military. They are supposed to be decent, supposed to be honorable people, let alone within the ranks, there are monsters," Mayra Guillén told CBS News.  

Vanessa Guillén's sisters react to Fort Hood investigation 10:57 © Provided by CBS News Vanessa Guillén's sisters react to Fort Hood investigation 10:57

In April 2021, the U.S. Army released a report saying officers at Fort Hood in Texas ignored complaints of sexual harassment from Guillén. Twenty-one soldiers were relieved of duty or reprimanded as a result of the investigation. 

The Guillén family filed a lawsuit seeking $35 million in damages from the U.S. government in August on the basis of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, rape, sodomy and wrongful death.   

The Netflix documentary was released Thursday and is being streamed in more than 100 countries. Natalie Khawam, an attorney who is representing the family pro bono, said the filming took place over two years and documented the family's everyday life after Vanessa's death and their frequent trips to Capitol Hill to push the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act into law.  

"It takes us through our lives over the last three years of really three immigrant women doing this our own way. Without the resources that people usually have, without the experiences that they have. We didn't have organizations funding us," Khawam told CBS News. "We weren't just a team; we were a family trying to accomplish this." 

Mayra Guillén serves as the president and founder of the I am Vanessa Guillen Foundation. Throughout the documentary, she is seen meeting with various political leaders as she was dealing with the grief of losing her sister. 

"That would be the harder part when your emotions come into play," she told CBS News. "Grief has weird ways of working but knowing that you still have to fulfill, I knew inside of me I had to fulfill what we came for and I couldn't let my emotions take over."

With the support of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and other lawmakers, parts of the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act became law in December 2021 with the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act.  

"There were so many ups and downs. There were so many adversities that we faced... Just looking back and I am so glad that we didn't give up, I am so glad that we stuck to our guns and focused on the mission," Khawam said. 

But the mission continues for both the Guillen family and Khawam as they work to pass the Sexual Harassment Independent Investigations and Prosecutions (SHIIP) Act into law and continue to support victims of military sexual trauma and harassment. 

With her experience and newfound knowledge in policy-making, Mayra Guillén is exploring the idea of running for Congress in the future. 

"I feel comfortable with the fact that people won't remain silent anymore," she said. "They are ready to speak out, they are ready to fight, they are ready to advocate, they are ready to come forward and say 'It's enough.' That's the better outcome rather than having victims be silenced, mistreated or retaliated against."

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