The family attorney of solider Vanessa Guillen, who went missing months ago after last being seen at Fort Hood Army Base in central Texas, said during a Wednesday press conference that they “believe that her remains were found.”
“I feel empty,” Mayra Guillen, Vanessa Guillen’s sister, tells TIME. “I feel like they took everything from me.”
The press conference came after a June 30 statement from Fort Hood officials, which confirmed that “agents have discovered what has been described as partial human remains after analysis from a forensic anthropologist.” Investigators said they suspected foul play. (The remains were reportedly found near Leon River in Bell County, Texas and have not yet been officially identified.)
Guillen’s family allege that the 20-year-old was sexually assaulted before her disappearance, and said Wednesday that a man they believed to be the perpetrator of that assault had recently killed himself. Fort Hood officials announced separately on Wednesday that one military suspect is dead after killing himself in Killeen, Texas; authorities said that as law enforcement agents, not including the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command Special Agents, tried to “make contact with the suspect, the suspect reportedly displayed a weapon and took his own life.” The deceased man’s name has not been released.
A civilian suspect has been arrested by Texas Rangers in connection with Guillen’s disappearance. The U.S. Army identified the suspect in custody as “the estranged wife of a former Fort Hood Soldier” and said she is “awaiting charges” by authorities.
“We have made significant progress in this tragic situation and are doing everything possible to get to the truth and bring answers to the family of Pfc. Vanessa Guillen,” said Chris Grey, spokesman for Army Criminal Investigation Command.
Natalie Khawam, the family’s lawyer, said they believe that the man had sexually harassed Guillen by walking in on and watching her while she was taking a shower in a locker room.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) has launched a criminal investigation into Guillen’s disappearance and is being assisted by the FBI and state and local law enforcement. The investigation is still open and ongoing, officials said Wednesday morning.
“How can this happen on a military base?” Lupe Guillen, Vanessa Guillen’s sister, said through tears.”They didn’t keep my sister safe.”
During their press conference, Guillen’s family and their attorney demanded a congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death, as well as legislation that would allow military personnel to report experiences of sexual harassment and assault to an independent third-party entity.
“We need a neutral agency, one with no stake in the game,” Khawam tells TIME. Currently, service members report experiences about sexual harassment and assault to an internal entity or their superiors, Khawam says; the Army, for example, relies on the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP). A restricted reporting process — that provides medical, legal, advocate, and support services without involving law enforcement involvement — is also available but, for many soldiers, isn’t seen as sufficient.
Khawam explained that Guillen did not report the sexual harassment to an internal agency because she indicated that “she was afraid to because the sexual harassment was coming from her superiors” and she worried about potential retaliation. “She wanted to have a career in the military and she didn’t want [this] to ruin her career,” Khawam said. (Guillen did, however, disclose the incident to her sisters, her mother, her friends and other soldiers on the military base, she said.)
Many private companies already have mechanisms to allow employees to report sensitive incidents to impartial outside parties, Khawan noted during the press conference. In the absence of such an outlet, she questions how men and women in the military can truly feel safe.
What Vanessa experienced “was not an isolated incident,” Khawam says. “They are brave soldiers protecting us, and especially now, we need legislation.”
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is an Iraq war veteran, also spoke at Wednesday’s event, saying that Congress has pushed the Department of Defense to adopt necessary for reforms for years, and while “some changes have been made,” they “have not gone nearly far enough.”
“What is happening here today is evidence of that,” Gabbard said.