Oftentimes, a story is more than a story — it’s many stories. Take a look at the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen on any social media platform, and you’ll see that the story of Spc. Vanessa Guillén — the 20-year-old Fort Hood soldier who went missing in late April and whose remains were identified by the Army on Sunday — is one of many.
Before she went missing, Guillén reportedly told her family about the sexual harassment she faced in the service. Now, women in the military are sounding the alarm once again, describing repeated harassment as well as their own sexual assaults. Some are creating TikTok videos detailing their experiences. Many are veterans who say they’d never shared their stories before in fear of retaliation. That’s what Guillén feared, too, according to her family.
Women in the military have called it their version of #MeToo: a collective reckoning of widespread harassment and a culture that encourages survivors of sexual assault to keep quiet. Some reports estimate that at least 25 percent of women in the U.S. military have been sexually assaulted, and at least 80 percent have been sexually harassed. But experts say that accurate numbers are hard to come by because of underreporting. The problem is only exacerbated for women of color, who deal with racism on top of sexism.
Below, four women — one active service member and three veterans — share their stories. They are four voices among the chorus of hundreds who have spoken out in the wake of Guillén’s death. They say they want justice for Guillén: an investigation into what exactly happened. And they say they want bigger changes in military culture, including a mandatory third party to investigate claims of harassment and assault. Most of all, they say, they want to see a fundamental shift in how women are regarded in the military. As they protect their country, they want to feel protected by their country, too.
In a statement, an Army spokesperson said, “The U.S. Army is committed to enhancing the readiness of our formations through the reduction, with the eventual goal of elimination of sexual assault and sexual harassment through prevention. Our goal is an Army-wide, prevention-focused culture of dignity and respect that fosters healthy command climates in which the behaviors and attitudes that lead to sexual offenses are rare and victims feel free to report without fear of retaliation. The Army is dedicated to enhancing prevention while emphasizing each member’s responsibility to intervene at the first sign of deviation from Army values.”
‘This wasn’t something I could not talk about for another 20 years’
Erika Arzola is a senior airman stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base.
Erika Arzola was only two weeks out of high school in 2017 when she decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.
Then 18, Arzola had grown up in Muleshoe, Texas, a town of about 5,000. She wanted to get out. “People don’t really go anywhere or do much,” she says. “I saw it as an opportunity for me and my family.”
When she graduated from basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, a local news outlet published an announcement: “The airman completed an intensive, eight-week program,” it read. Her headshot in uniform showed a bright-eyed young woman, smiling.
But in August of that year, when Arzola went to technical school training at nearby Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, she would see just how “tough” the culture of the military could be. She says she was sexually assaulted in her dorm building by someone she considered a friend just a few weeks after arriving.
When Arzola, now 21, recently saw the news that the Army confirmed Guillén had been killed, she mourned Guillén like a family member. Arzola had been following the story closely, ever since Guillén’s own family began demanding that the Army investigate her disappearance from Fort Hood.
Although Arzola had heard many stories of assault in the military, something about Guillén’s felt different. Her background was so similar to her own, Arzola says. Guillén’s family, like Arzola’s, had come from Mexico and found a life in Texas. As Latinas, the cultural expectation might’ve been that they’d become housewives or have part-time jobs, not that they’d go to the military, where they could find real success and travel, says Arzola: “To see someone do the same things I did, for the same reasons, caught my attention.”
Arzola’s story ended up playing out differently than Guillén’s. After her assault, Arzola told her roommate and friends, who advised that she go to the hospital. A Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention Program (SHARP) coordinator met her there, Arzola says, and she decided to report the assault. She learned three other women had alleged the same man had assaulted them as well. An investigation began, and the perpetrator went on military trial in 2018. After a week-long trial, he was sentenced to 10 years in military prison.
“Sexual assault and harassment are inconsistent with our core values, and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” Ann Stefanek, a U.S. Air Force spokesperson, said in a statement. “We urge those who experience these crimes to come forward so we can provide support and hold perpetrators accountable.”
Arzola is still enlisted — she’s a drug and alcohol abuse counselor at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. That’s part of why she feels it’s important for her to tell her story.
“I think to make changes in the military, you have to change it while you’re there,” Arzola says. “I plan to stay for 20 years. So when I weighed my options, this wasn’t something I could hold onto and not talk about for another 20 years of my life.”
‘You have to deal with what you go through’
Adriana Montes joined the Army in 2007 and was discharged under honorable conditions in 2010.
Adriana Montes’s mother cried when she enlisted in the service in 2007. Then 20, Montes “honestly thought” she was going to change her life, she says. She’d grown up in a low-income home in San Antonio, Texas, and she was the first in her family to graduate from high school. “I thought, ‘I’m getting us out of here,’” she says.
But Montes’s mother didn’t cry out of pride. She cried because she was scared of what might happen to her daughter in the Army.
Basic training at South Carolina’s Fort Jackson was a rude awakening, says Montes, now 33. She immediately felt the impact of a workplace dominated by men (in 2004, women represented nearly 15 percent of the overall active duty force; in 2017, women represented 16 percent). And they made sure she knew it, too, she says; the male drill sergeants called the women “whores” and “bitches.”
“Women ask me to this day, ‘Do you think I should join the service?’” Montes says. “I have to pull them to the side and ask, how much stress can you handle? Because they are going to stress you out to the max.”
Montes was stationed at Fort Hood as a 92 Whiskey — a water treatment specialist — for her entire career, save for a year-long stint in Iraq. It was there, overseas, that she was sexually assaulted by another soldier, she says.
When she came back to the United States from Iraq in 2009, she began “drowning” herself in alcohol. In 2010, she failed a drug test for marijuana. The Army discharged her under honorable conditions.
For the next four to five years living in Houston, Montes “struggled,” abusing alcohol and drugs to numb herself. “It took a long time for me to tell myself I was only killing myself,” she says. But she eventually found joy at a local CrossFit gym, where she’d spend more than five hours a day, training and competing.
Montes says she’s clean now, and “blessed” with a 2-year-old son “who has given me a reason to keep going.” Still, the effects of her time in the service have forever shaped her: It’s difficult for her to open up about her emotions with her partner, for example. She says she was so used to keeping silent about the verbal attacks she’d endured, and about the assault.
Just last week, Montes learned she could put in a claim for disability compensation for military sexual trauma, so she pulled together statements from former colleagues and wrote her story down.
It may be a decade since she served, but Montes feels like now is the time for all women to speak about their experiences. She regrets that she didn’t sooner.
‘I felt like I was strong enough for it’
Morgan Miller joined the Air Force in 2006 and was medically retired starting in 2016.
Morgan Miller, 31, will tell you that she had a good career in the Air Force. After enlisting in 2006 at 17 — with the consent of both of her parents — she began training as a medic. She’d work her way up the ranks, eventually becoming a staff sergeant.
She’ll also tell you that sexism was a constant throughout her nearly decade-long career. Although the culture was “very toxic,” as she puts it, she felt it was navigable. “I always stayed in my own lane,” she says. “I had a big enough personality where people wouldn’t try me like that, and I feel like if I was timid, I would’ve experienced more issues earlier on.”
She says her assault happened in 2012, when she was 24 and stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. She’d been out with co-workers off base, at a restaurant, and then went back to a hotel with an older airman. She never saw the airman after that night, she says; she heard he got stationed overseas shortly after that.
Memories of what happened that night wouldn’t come back to Miller until two years later, she says, when the airman gave her a call out of the blue. “That’s when I started having issues with anxiety and my PTSD symptoms started occurring,” she says. By November 2014, she says she “remembered enough” of what happened that night to report it.
That’s when “everything went downhill,” Miller says. The U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations launched an investigation, but Miller opted to be a nonparticipating victim and says she only interacted with a special victims’ counsel (SVC), a military lawyer who specializes in representing victims of assault. Under the stress of the investigation, she says, she was put on a behavioral health profile.
As Stefanek, the Air Force spokesperson, describes, there are two reporting options when it comes to allegations of harassment or assault: Restricted reports allow victims to receive support while keeping information confidential, while unrestricted reporting includes victim support but allows for investigation and command authority notification.
In 2015, Miller asked to be compassionately reassigned; she thought a change of scenery might help her move on from the incident. But being stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida wasn’t any better, she says. She didn’t feel she had the “mental capacity” to perform her job.
“They just kept pushing and pushing and pushing me to work, and I ended up breaking down completely,” Miller says. In 2016, she was temporarily medically retired. She was permanently retired in 2019.
Now, Miller is a program analyst for the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping veterans get benefits for environmental exposure. But what she really wants to do is help women who are struggling with the effects of sexual trauma.
“It’s so many of us,” Miller says.
‘The uniform is like a mask’
Modariel Reid joined the Army in 2017 and was honorably discharged in 2018.
Modariel Reid, 21, had no real passion for the military when she joined in 2017. It’d been a close cousin who convinced her to enlist — the two women joined the same day.
The leering began shortly after she arrived at basic training in Fort Jackson. “I first noticed how much the people training you prey on the new trainees,” she says. She describes a push-up and sit-up test in which a drill sergeant was trying to look up her shorts.
Still, when she began her job training — she was being prepped as a cook — at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, she was excited. As Reid puts it: “Wearing that uniform every day and being a soldier was something so new. I was very eager, and you think that you’re so protected, that the people put in charge of you are good. The uniform is like a mask.”
But she soon felt she couldn’t trust her superiors at all, she says. Although her direct superior and their sergeant were both black women like herself, Reid says she felt they were constantly working against her — when she burned her hand in field training, for example, they accused her of doing it on purpose.
Reid says that she encountered that “eerie” feeling again a few months later, from a fellow trainee at a party off base. Reid says that after he sexually assaulted her later that night, she didn’t feel she could turn to her superiors. Most commonly, reports like that go through a service member’s chain of command. According to Reid, her point of contact for SHARP was her superior.
After the assault, Reid says she “didn’t want to put on that damn uniform.” She was depressed and stopped showing up to work; she “stopped caring.” She became suicidal and was hospitalized. Reid was honorably discharged in 2018; she’d been in the Army for 18 months.
Now, Reid is working as a model. She has a 2-year-old daughter. Although she’s doing well, the disability checks she gets every month remind her of her experience in the military.
“I didn’t go in there with depression and anxiety,” she says. “And I come out and I’m ‘disabled’ because of my time there.”