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Vanessa Guillen's family files lawsuit against Army for $35 million in damages

The Guillen family is challenging a longstanding military doctrine that does not allow members of the military who suffer any type of injury while on active duty to sue the federal government in civilian courts.
Publicado 13 Ago 2022 – 10:10 AM EDT | Actualizado 13 Ago 2022 – 10:14 AM EDT
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Supporters of the family of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen gather before a news conference on Capitol Hill, July 30, 2020, in Washington. Crédito: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The family of murdered Army specialist Vanessa Guillen filed a potentially ground-breaking lawsuit claiming $35 million damages against the U.S. Army on Friday, arguing that it was responsible for her death at Fort Hood Army base in April 2020.

“The Army must be held accountable for their wrong doings, the way they handled the investigations early on, the way that Vanessa was treated, the nightmare that she had to endure while serving,” her sister, Mayra Guillen, stated in court documents.

Historically, active-duty military who are victims of sexual assault have not been able to sue the Department of Defense for damages due to a longstanding rule, known as the Feres Doctrine, which does not allow members of the military who suffer any kind of injury while on active duty to sue the federal government in civil court. An exception was recently granted for medical malpractice by the Veterans health system.

The lawyer of the Guillen family, Natalie Khawam, lobbied Congress to change this rule through the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act which was passed last year. While the law for the first time recognized sexual assault as a crime, it did not allow for lawsuits seeking damages.

On Thursday, an unprecedented ruling in the 9th Circuit in California found that sexual assault is not related to service and therefore service members who are sexually assaulted should not be barred to bring a suit.

In that case an Army Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser, accused Air Force General John Hyten, of sexual assault while attending a defense forum in California in 2019. Hyten claimed his military service protected him from being sued, citing the Feres Doctrine.

The appeals court found the doctrine does not cancel Spletstoser’s right to sue because the “alleged sexual assault (could) not conceivably serve any military purpose.”

The court ruling added: “It is unimaginable that plaintiff would have been ‘under orders’ to submit to Hyten’s sexual advances, or that she was performing any sort of military mission in conjunction with the alleged assault.”

Khawam told Univision News that she filed the claim for the Guillen family as a result of Thursday ruling in the Hyten case which she said had opened the door for the first time to other victims of sexual assault.

“Our service members deserve the same protections and rights as everyone else. Yesterday’s ruling is a step in the right direction for Justice for Vanessa, and all victims of sexual assault,” said Khawam.

“This was an injury in battle, this was not war. These soldiers do not sign up to be sexually assaulted while in uniform,” added Khawam.

While the I Am Vanessa Guillen was an important step, Khawam said that only be allowing claims for damages will the army take the necessary steps to protect soldiers from sexual predators.

Family received $150,000 after Vanessa Guillen death for her service

The personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit was filed in civil court in Fort Meade, Maryland, where the U.S. Army in headquartered, by Guillen’s sister, Mayra Guillen, on behalf of the family. It claims that Vanessa Guillen and her heirs “have lost her livelihood and income to the date of her natural death.”

The Guillen family received $150,000 after her death in recognition of her military service.

Mayra Guillen says that her sister was repeatedly sexually harassed by other solider above her rank, including a proposition of a 'threesome' and spying on her in the bathroom. “Vanessa was upset and very disturbed by these incidents” and suffered “major retaliation” after rumors spread regarding both incidents, Mayra Guillen stated in the court document.

Mayra Guillen also described how her sister called her in January 2020 saying that she wanted to commit suicide. “Vanessa couldn’t handle the sexual harassment or sexual assault,” stated Mayra Guillen, adding that her sister was too scared to report the incidents for fear of more retaliation. Her body was found three months later in body parts, burned and buried in cement.

Her suspected killer, fellow soldier, Aaron Robinson, committed suicide as he was about to be arrested for her murder and his alleged accomplice, Cecily Aguilar, was arrested and is awaiting trial.

“My family endured so much in the last two years,” stated Mayra Guillen. “None of us ha the time to grieve or accept what ha happened to our loved one,” she added.

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