On April 22, 20-year-old Army Spec. Vanessa Guillén disappeared from the Fort Hood Army base, in Killeen, Texas, where she’d been assigned. Photos of Guillén accompanied the news reports, as her mother pleaded for information leading to her daughter’s return. As pictures of Guillén’s last movements were discovered, it was revealed she reported the sexual harassment she’d faced to her chain of command.
As a Navy veteran, I am intimately familiar with navigating pervasive sexual harassment in military ranks. I never reported the harassment I faced during my enlistment, but, when the #MeToo movement began, the experiences shared by the women coming forward triggered a cascade of memories of the little indignities I had to smile through and the outright predatory behavior I had to talk my way out of.
Guillén’s disappearance reminded me of what it was like to be 20 years old and in the military. Your 20s are already a crash course of figuring out who you are. And when you add being indoctrinated into the military industrial complex, things get complicated fast.
The armed forces are a curious environment for women. Hyper masculinity, patriarchy and rape culture are woven into every aspect of the military. From recruitment to deployment, everything is geared toward men, their needs and desires. That includes the way women standing next to them in ranks are viewed and treated.
From the moment I entered bootcamp until the day I was discharged, several of the men I worked with would tell me in different ways they didn’t see my humanity before I inadvertently proved to them I was different from “other females” onboard.
I was assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln, a super carrier that housed around 6,000 people, most of them men. After a period of adjustment, I settled into the life of a Navy sailor. It didn’t take long to recognize the Navy often behaved like a behemoth in a perpetual state of arousal. We trained, took our jobs seriously and were constantly preparing, but the pressure and intensity often manifested in inappropriate displays of sex and sexuality.
There were numerous times I was the target of those displays. Whether an explicit declaration or leers that lasted too long, I navigated these moments as best I could. Whether a withering smile, cutting remark or outright hostility, I would do what I thought the moment called for, but there were moments so outrageous and shocking sometimes all I could do was leave the space. I tried not to think too long about what these things meant or my annoyance in having to deal with them.
Looking at Guillén’s photo and hearing about the harassment concerns she had brought back uneasy feelings and memories I’d put away. But one memory in particular kept replaying in my mind.
Almost a quarter of the way through my first six-month deployment, the ship settled into the rhythm of 12-hour workdays and a Groundhog Day like existence– similar to pandemic life.
Signs went up around the ship asking for volunteer DJs, and I jumped at the chance to host my own show. I met with the new mass communication specialist who was running the radio station and other media on board. He was a first-class petty officer (an E-6 non-commissioned officer), who arrived at our ship a few months earlier. I didn’t know him, but I’d seen him around and a friend of mine worked with him. The initial conversation went well and I was offered a show slot.
I began training with the radio supervisor and crafting my show. He was nice enough. We talked about common interests and he even played some music for me on the keyboard he’d brought along. When I told him I used to play the piano and still hoped to pick it back up one day, he offered to give me lessons.
My first couple of radio shows aired and I was enjoying the process of producing it.
Days before we’d drop anchor in Hong Kong, my first foreign port, I ran into the radio supervisor. He asked me to meet him in a passageway near the fantail (the rear of the ship) after my shift ended, because he had something to ask me. I wouldn’t get off until around 7 pm, but I agreed. I figured whatever he wanted shouldn’t take long.
I can’t remember if he was waiting for me in the passageway, or I arrived before him, but I remember the faint light that left a filmy haze over the space. Just enough to see, but not enough to give away the ships position on the darkened sea when someone opened the hatch to the fantail.
It was a strange spot to meet in considering he worked in a brightly lit, somewhat private, shop. I asked him what was up.
“Let’s talk out on the fantail,” he said as he leaned past me and opened the hatch leading outside of the ship.
As I peered out into the inky black nothingness of open ocean on a moonless night, I could hear only the roar of the ocean as we cut through the darkened sea. The absence of light was so complete that had I stepped out of the dingy light overhead, I would have been devoured by darkness.
My body understood the danger before I could articulate it. I looked at him and read his insistence. I needed to make my exit, quickly. With a strangled laugh, I said, “No. No, I’m not going out there. You can ask me whatever you need to ask me right here.”
He tried to persuade me to step out into darkness and the sound of churned ocean. The ship was moving fast through the night. We wouldn’t even be able to hear each other comfortably. This made no sense.
“Come on. Let’s just talk outside,” he said.
Technically, he could order me out of that hatch and into the dark. I could feel the heat of hostility begin to make its way up my spine. He was an E-6 and I was an E-nothing in Navy terms. I had no power.
I didn’t care. I just wanted to get away from him. I folded my arms and said, “Say what you have to say.”
He closed the hatch and murmured, “My friend and his girl are planning to go to Disneyland when we get to Hong Kong. I wanted to see if you wanted to go with us. We’re getting a hotel and…”
I stared at him as he continued. Frustrated and spooked, I told him, “No, thank you.” I made a quick escape up a ladder well and into the safety of the female sleeping quarters I was assigned.
I stopped doing my radio show. I avoided that man for the rest of my time on the ship.
As the weeks dragged on and Guillén’s whereabouts remained a mystery, #IAmVanessaGuillén began trending on social media platforms. Veterans and current military women shared their frustration at how Guillén’s disappearance was being handled by the Army, and other’s shared their stories of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and how the military silenced, punished and pushed them out of ranks, while perpetrators of the crimes committed against them were able to continue on their career paths. Story after story populated the search results of how the military feels about people who dare to report sexual harassment and assault.
Two months after her disappearance, Guillén remains were found.
Her suspected murderer took his life as police approached him. No motive for her murder has been released.
To be clear, news reports about the sexual harassment she reported are vague. Guillén confided in her family before her disappearance, but according to the Washington Post, Army investigators stated there was “potentially some harassment, not of a sexual nature.”
I laid in the cool darkness of my bedroom after she was identified. I turned to the memory of that passageway and looking into nothingness. More than a decade has passed, but it wasn’t until that very moment I realized, the worst thing that could have happened to me wasn’t the sexual assault I sensed he planned. The worst thing would have been me being thrown into the churning sea afterward. No one may have noticed I was missing until the next morning.