Vanessa Guillen’s family marked a milestone in their journey seeking justice for her killing Wednesday when they marched from the U.S. Capitol Hill to the White House to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the military.
As the U.S. army specialist’s sister, Lupe Guillen, spoke out about her sister at the National Mall in hopes that the country will listen to the men and women in the military who say they are victims of sexual harassment, there was one former Army officer who was paying close attention.
Lucy Del Gaudio served in the Army for eight years in the 1990s, and says she was raped by a superior — a man she once considered a mentor — while in Germany in 1992. When she heard about Guillen’s story, Del Guadio said the 20-year-old’s story sounded all too familiar.
“I started hearing little tidbits but I didn’t wanna really take a deep dive into it, because again, I didn’t know what type of trigger it was gonna be for me,” Del Gaudio said.
Guillen was last seen at her military base — Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas — on April 22. After two months of searching, her remains were found June 30 in a shallow grave near a river in Bell County, Texas, about 20 miles away from the base.
On July 1, Guillen’s alleged killer, 20-year-old Army Spc. Aaron Robinson, died by suicide.
Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, 22, is accused of assisting with the disposal of Guillen’s body. She was charged with one count of conspiracy to tamper with documents or proceedings and two counts of tampering with documents or proceedings. She faces up to 20 years in prison and has pleaded not guilty.
Guillen’s mother says that months before she went missing, she told her she’d been sexually harassed by a sergeant, but that she didn’t report it because she didn’t think she’d be believed. It’s a claim the Army says they are investigating, but the family is still trying to find answers as to how this could’ve happened inside one of the largest military bases in the U.S.
Her story has ignited what some are calling a #MeToo moment for the military, inspiring other veterans to share their stories and demand reform to the military existing system of reporting and prosecuting sexual harassment and assault within its ranks.
Like Guillen, Del Gaudio thought she would build a long career out of military service.
“Being Latina, so many Latinas go into the military as a way to try to better themselves, to establish legacy, to show how patriotic we are to this country,” she said.
But Del Gaudio says “everything changed” when she experienced the sexual assault.
“I started seeing a different path,” she said. “I started seeing a difference in the people around me that I trusted and I started losing faith in what I thought was my Army.”
Although Del Gaudio keeps many of the details of her assault private, she says that when she reported the incident, one of the responses was, “Are you sure?”
“It was like this back and forth, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?’ Yes, I’m sure,” she said.
To Del Gaudio’s knowledge, an official report on her incident was never filed.
“I was an outstanding soldier and the minute that happened to me and the minute I reported [it] and the minute they neglected to believe me, I became a different person,” Del Gaudio said. “I became angry and, at times, I became belligerent and, at times, I was not myself.”
“That’s what makes me so enraged … that they see us changing,” she added. “We report that we are assaulted, we report that we’re harassed, they see us slowly decline and they have no regard for us and they don’t try to seek any type of assistance for us.”
A Pentagon report released last year examining the previous year’s incident reports, estimated that one in four servicewomen experienced some sort of sexual harassment while serving in 2018.
Even though it’s been almost 30 years since her assault, Del Gaudio said “every day there’s reminders; there’s triggers.”
“You know, scents … a voice, a haircut. There’s triggers every day,” she said. “Every day.”
In a statement to ABC News regarding Del Guadio’s allegations, an Army spokesperson said: “The Army takes allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and investigates reports of sexual assault. We ask Lucy Del Guadio to contact any Army Criminal Investigation Command office to initiate an investigation.”
Del Gaudio was eventually reassigned to another unit, then transferred from active duty to the Army reserves, moving back to the United States, before leaving the Army altogether in 1998.
“I totally feel like they didn’t do their job, they didn’t take care of me,” she said. “On the other side, I have to say, I value the military because of what we do to protect and serve. I’m a patriot, but this piece of the puzzle they need to fix because if they continually fail us, I don’t know how much longer I could feel this way.”
Today, Del Gaudio is part of a grassroots effort fighting to make sure families like the Guillens receive the justice they deserve.
“I’ve met some of the most wonderful women in the veteran space that are all over the country,” she said. “And the mission was to really align ourselves with what the Guillen family wanted, but what they deserve because they deserve justice for their daughter.”
The Guillen family is now pushing for federal legislation that would provide a third-party agency for soldiers who are victims of sexual harassment or assault to report their experiences. Service members at the moment are required to report their assaults to designated military victims’ advocates, who tend to be colleagues within the same unit.
“The legislation is going to be the justice that she deserves. There will be something that will be in her honor, that she didn’t die in vain. … As a nation, we can’t fail her,” said Natalie Khawam, the Gullien family’s attorney. “And here is this legislation that will say, ‘It will never happen again.’”
Khawam added, “It’s not just her. That’s the sad part. This is the tip of the iceberg. There’s so many of these cases.”
Del Gaudio testified before Congress on Wednesday, where she shared her story publicly.
“Zero tolerance must mean zero tolerance, military justice must be swift and it must be just,” she said during her testimony for the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
Although Guillen was unable to speak out about her experience, Del Gaudio is fighting to ensure it’s heard.
“I wish it was her. … [But] we are going to give her the voice that she justly deserves because we are fighting for her. We are really fighting for her justice.”