Federal ‘Vanessa Guillen’ Act introduced, data reveals risk of sexual assault at Fort Bliss

Politics

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Christian Alvarado never thought he’d be convicted of sexually assaulting Pfc. Asia Graham and other women.

“These [expletive] are going to trip when I walk out of this,” Alvarado told Maj. Natalia Cardona, the military forensic psychologist who evaluated him as part of a general court-martial.

Alvarado’s statement prior to being convicted and sentenced to 18 years underscores the attitudes that lawmakers and advocates say are emblematic of the need for military justice reform when it comes to sexual assault.

“We’re here today because every year, 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted and another 100,000 are sexually harassed,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, said in a news conference on Wednesday.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, joined Speier and a coterie of legislators from both parties and chambers of the U.S. Congress to introduce the Vanessa Guillen Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. The bipartisan and bicameral bill would transfer the decision to prosecute serious crimes in the military from the chain of command and into the hands of trained, independent military prosecutors. Escobar is co-leading efforts on the House side. 

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act (MJIIPA) to the Senate earlier this week. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas,. is also working on the act.

“For eight years, I have proudly worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Gillibrand on this crucial, bipartisan legislation to combat sexual violence in our nation’s military,” Cruz wrote in an email to KTSM 9 News. “Unfortunately, sexual assault within the ranks continues to be a substantial problem facing our service members — and it’s one we must address decisively.”

The continued calls for legislation come in the wake of Graham’s death and the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen following separate incidents of sexual assault while enlisted in the military.

“The fact remains, under the status quo, too many victims are reluctant to come forward and report these horrific crimes,” Cruz wrote. “Moving prosecution of sexual assaults outside of the chain of command can help prevent those assaults by increasing reporting throughout our military and assuring victims that any possible conflicts with their command structure won’t affect their case.”

Analyses of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the U.S. Army was conducted at the request of the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1 to evaluate where and why incidents are most prevalent. The analyses found the average total risk to all women in the Army overall is 5.8 percent, but that some groups of women face a much higher risk of sexual assault/harassment based on the installation that they’re assigned to.

Fort Bliss was found to have the second-highest risk for women with a rate of 7.6 percent. The study found that Fort Hood has the highest risk for sexual assault, at 8.4 percent. The study’s authors reported that about 1 in 12 women at Fort Hood are sexually assaulted.

Additional risk was identified based on commands and career fields. The commands with the highest total risk for women are combat units, particularly the 1st Cavalry Division (with a risk of 9.3 percent), Headquarters, III Corps (8.1 percent overall risk), both at Fort Hood; and the 1st Armored Division (8.5 percent), which is at Fort Bliss. 

Women in artillery careers were found to have the highest total risk of sexual assault at a rate of 10.6 percent out of all groups of soldiers evaluated.

The study’s researchers say one explanation is that both Fort Hood and Fort Bliss have large volumes of young, unmarried women who are junior-ranking soldiers.

The research team also examined adjusted risk, which evaluates the risk of sexual assault and harassment on an installation-by-installation basis. Again, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss were reported to have high adjusted risk, meaning that women at these installations are at greater risk of sexual assault than at comparative bases. Men in the Army, by contrast, were found to have an overall risk of 0.6 percent of sexual assault and 6.5 percent overall risk of sexual harassment.

The researchers’ recommendation is to optimize reductions in sexual assault rates by offering enhanced and expanded prevention programs to installations, commands and career fields where soldiers are most at risk. An additional recommendation for the researchers is to collect survey data to quickly and efficiently identify units, commands, bases, career fields and other groups at risk for sexual assault and harassment.

Proposed legislation and recommendations by researchers also urge the implementation of preventative efforts. Research suggests that the climate of a particular base of unit plays a role in the prevalence of sexual assault or harassment.

“Groups of soldiers that have better supervisor unit and unit climate scores tend to have lower adjusted sexual assault risk and sexual harassment risk scores, while groups with worse climate scores have higher adjusted risk,” according to the study.

Another recommendation is to develop climate-improvement interventions for commands, installations and career fields with elevated adjusted risk for sexual assault and harassment and poor climate scores.

Other characteristics were identified with elevated risks of sexual assault among women in the military, particularly groups with large proportions of soldiers with combat arms jobs. The recommendation is to examine the distinctions between service members’ experiences in similar groups with different risk profiles in order to determine factors such as work life, social life, culture, etc., that could contribute to disparities when it comes to sexual assault/harassment exposure. 

The authors of the study stress conducting studies and sharing historical sexual assault risk and harassment data with unit commanders.

“When we have a system that fails victims, everyone is failed. Because everyone is a potential victim,” said Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is looking to the future and is confident the bill will pass quickly in the House and Senate.

Legislators working on the bill said they wanted to also remember the lives lost before introduction of the legislation.

“We come together today with one voice, with one plan, to save service members from the fates of Specialist Guillen, Private First Class Asia Graham, Airman First Class Natasha Aposhian,” said Speier.

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