The newly introduced bill would make sexual harassment a crime under military law. The measure is a response to the killing of Fort Hood Army soldier Vanessa Guillen this summer.
Vanessa Guillen's death has become almost synonymous with the military's often criticized sexual assault and harassment response.
Before the 20 year-old Army specialist went missing in April, Guillen told her mother she was being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier but was afraid to report it. Officials later discovered she had been killed in an armory on Fort Hood, then dismembered. Not long after, suspect Aaron Robinson, also a soldier, pulled a gun and shot himself when confronted by police near the post in Killeen, Texas.
Guillen's 16 year-old sister Lupe said the Army failed to protect her, and kept their family in the dark about its investigation. With tears streaming down her face, she spoke at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol and accused the Army of valuing equipment more than people.
"It's disgusting how a piece of armor goes missing and they do everything to find it," Guillen said. "But when it comes to a life like Vanessa's, they do nothing. A life is more valuable than an object. Life happens once, and there's no going back."
Flanked by Guillen's family and their lawyer Natalie Khawam, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Cal.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on military personnel, unveiled the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act. It's a long-awaited bill that defines sexual harassment and makes it a crime in the military.
It draws its name from a social media effort in which service members around the country shared their own stories of sexual trauma and demanded reform.
"The Pentagon's own reports tell us that sexual harassment creates an environment that makes sexual assault more likely," Speier said. "This culture is broken. The rot has festered for generations. And the data proves what survivors have been telling us for years: What we have been doing is not working."
Advocates and victims have long called for stronger action against sexual harassment and assault in the ranks.
Under the current system, servicemembers who grope, cat-call, or create hostile work environments often don't face punishment. When they do, it's usually minor without any lasting effect on their careers.
"They may get a write up in their file, but that may go away after a year," said Diana Danis, an adviser with the Women Veterans Social Justice Network. "So the next assignment doesn't know they did it."
Danis hopes making harassment a formal crime will lead to more punishments and more victims coming forward with reports. But, she says, perhaps most importantly, it could discourage sexual offenders from committing more violent acts, like rape.
"Sexual harassment is a lead up, because these are crimes of power and control in an environment that prides itself on good order and discipline," Danis added. "Good order and discipline very often takes advantage of vulnerable people between the ages of 18 and 24, which is the predominant age of people in the military."
The bill also would take away commanders' authority to make prosecution decisions in cases of sexual harassment and assault. Right now, they have a lot of discretion over how those cases are dealt with.
That can create problems - especially when a victim is abused by someone higher up the chain of command. In a recent Pentagon survey, 64% of women who reported a sexual assault say they faced retaliation or backlash - most often from their superiors .
"You have cliques and groups of people that socialize with one another." said Deshauna Barber is the CEO of Service Women's Action Network.
"Sometimes that does include people that are part of the chain of command," she said. "What if it's your commander or the executive officer of the unit? What if it's your platoon leader? Your platoon sergeant? You're reporting to the person that's harassing you, the person who committed the crime."
Under the legislation, prosecutorial authority would move outside of the chain of command for sexual assault and sexual harassment cases. Complaints would go before each service's Office of the Chief Prosecutor for review. In the longer term, each military branch would be required to create a special legal office to investigate sexual misconduct accusations and make recommendations for punishment.
It would also require the Government Accountability Office to report on how various military branches handle missing servicemembers.
The legislation is the latest in a long line of bills designed to change the military's legal structure. In recent months, military brass have pushed back, arguing for the integrity of the chain of command.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote. It has bipartisan support and more than 70 co-sponsors.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.