In 2020 alone, 31 soldiers connected to Fort Hood died

By Christine Pelisek
December 23, 2020 09:59 AM
Credit: Reuters/US Army

Lupe Guillen always idolized her older sister Vanessa.

The two bonded over soccer and planned on running a marathon together. Vanessa, a small arms repairer with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood, always put family first and drove home every weekend to spend time with them.

“She was the type of sister who would push me in making myself a better person," Lupe, 17, says.

Lupe even considered following in her sister’s military footsteps. But everything changed on April 22 when Vanessa, 20, disappeared.

For 70 agonizing days, Vanessa's family pleaded in vain, they say, for help from commanders before her remains were found in a shallow grave. Vanessa had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer, allegedly by fellow soldier Aaron Robinson, who had also sexually harassed Vanessa, her family says.

Robinson died by suicide as authorities closed in on him. His girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, has been charged with tampering with evidence.

Vanessa Guillen
| Credit: US Army

Since then, Vanessa’s family and their attorney Natalie Khawam have tried to shine a spotlight on a string of deaths at the central Texas installation. In 2020 alone, 31 soldiers connected to Fort Hood died, including 11 reported as suicides and five as homicides.

For more on the string of violence at Fort Hood, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

"There's been a toxic culture at Fort Hood," Lyman Paul, whose cousin, PV2 Corlton Chee, 25, collapsed during physical fitness training on Aug. 28 and later died, says in this week’s PEOPLE.

Paul says Chee had complained to his family of being bullied on site.

In the late summer, a five-member civilian team was sent to Fort Hood to conduct an independent review of the installation. The team allegedly found hundreds of unreported sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents as well as no proactive efforts to address drug issues, violent crimes or suicides, according to the independent review.

Cecily Aguilar, Aaron Robinson
| Credit: Belly County Sheriff's Office; Facebook

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Following those findings, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy ordered the firing or suspension of 14 of Fort Hood's senior leaders. McCarthy also ordered 70 policy changes, including procedures for handling cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, mental illness and missing persons.

“We're satisfied that it's one step in the right direction,” says Vanessa’s sister Mayra, 22. However, the family still wants answers.

“There's so much more to go,” says Mayra. “We're going to keep pushing forward. I believe that if [Vanessa’s] purpose to come to this world was to open up everything that was wrong in the military, and we're here to keep pushing and to help her accomplish that goal.”

The Guillen family is also pushing for the I am Vanessa Guillen Act, which would transform the military’s response to sexual violence.

“I think we all stand together with this, that what happened to her never happens again and this bill gets passed,” says Khawam. “Give these soldiers a voice and protections that they deserve, just like everyone else.”

“They were supposed to respect her and protect her,” says Lupe. “I'm doing this because of Vanessa. She taught me to never give up.”