Army Staff Sgt. Raúl Rios folded a U.S. flag in the military’s symbolic triangle to honor slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen. He then posted video of the military funeral ritual on social media.
Pam Campos-Palma, a former Air Force counterterrorism intelligence analyst, collected more than 4,000 signatures from service women and veterans in an open letter demanding sweeping change in the military and the shutdown of Fort Hood, Texas, where Guillen served.
Queta Rodríguez, 49, a retired Marine active in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in San Antonio, organized a rally demanding justice for Guillen.
Protests and activities that have erupted on behalf of Guillen and her family may seem to some as being motivated by contempt for the military. But there’s been a historic connection between Latinos in the military and calls for equity and civil rights.
The notion that the military could not protect Guillen — who dreamed of serving her country since she was young — has rattled many who are protesting.
“The betrayal is part of it. Some of it is cultural as well,” Rodríguez said. “We are very family oriented in our communities. We grow up really having these traditions where family is important. We could see that one of us could be Vanessa or Vanessa’s mother.”
The Army found the remains of Guillen’s dismembered body two months after she was last seen on April 22. A suspect in her slaying, a fellow Fort Hood soldier, shot and killed himself as police moved in to arrest him. A woman that officials identified as his girlfriend was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of tampering with evidence.
Marches in protest of Guillen’s death were held last weekend in several U.S. cities, with some 2,000 turning out for a caravan in San Antonio and hundreds in Austin, Texas.
Guillen’s family and their supporters have raised issues around a lack of accountability in the chain of command, the absence of transparency surrounding the case and questions about unequal justice for people of color — which echo some of the issues Black Lives Matter protesters have raised about America’s police forces.
“Latinos have a proud history of serving the country, but then not being treated as equal citizens,” said Domingo Garcia, president and CEO of LULAC, who urged Latinas not to join the military until there are assurances in place that women will be protected while serving.
Latinos make up about 16 percent of active duty service members, but they’re the country’s fastest-growing minority population.
Latino civil rights organizations such as the American G.I. Forum, founded by Dr. Hector Perez García, a World War II Army veteran, and LULAC, formed in 1929, were founded by, or included in their membership, veterans who returned from war only to face racism in the U.S. They waged legal battles and fought for access to GI benefits, including medical care, as well as equity in schooling and employment.
In the last couple of decades, a number of young immigrants who have grown up in the United States but don’t have legal status have fought passionately for the chance to serve in the military. They’ve advocated for legislation that allows them to serve as a perquisite for American citizenship.
Mexican Americans and other Latinos held a series of marches known as The Chicano Moratorium in 1969 and ’70. They were a call to end the Vietnam War, but also a protest that disproportionate numbers of Mexican Americans were dying in the war while the country denied them equality.
Joining the military “is something you do”
“Our community is very patriotic. We are very much about supporting the military,” said Rodriguez, who followed her two older brothers into the Marine Corps, knowing she could “do something bigger than myself.” Her parents grew up in San Antonio’s West Side neighborhood, where segregation confined many of the city’s Mexican Americans.
“This is something that is honorable growing up in our communities, and for some it’s a career path, it’s something you do — you are serving the country, but you are also serving yourself,” said Rodríguez, who entered the military as a private and retired as a captain.
“Not only that, we have a lot of youth,” she added. “Vanessa wanted to join the military at a very young age.”
Family members said Guillen had spoken of joining the military since she was 10 and her younger sister, Lupe, has said that she had looked up to her and wanted to follow in her footsteps.
The pride Rodriguez refers to was reflected in Rios, 33, who emigrated from Mexico, as he enacted the flag-folding ritual for Guillen that is conducted at service members’ and veterans’ funerals.
Rios has been part of an honor guard for more than 800 funerals. “It just felt right for me to do something on her behalf,” he said.
Concerns over “fear” of speaking out over sexual harassment
Guillen’s family said she had told them that a soldier or supervisor had been spying on her in the shower. Fort Hood officials said they were not aware of any reports by Guillen about being sexually harassed.
Since Guillen’s disappearance, however, many female service members and veterans have shared stories of sexual harassment and assault.
Yesenia Mata, 31, of New York, and a member of the Army National Reserve, followed her brother’s lead and joined the military, despite her father’s concerns. She already had a master’s degree and been involved in political activism.
But Mata said she didn’t feel comfortable reporting the sexual harassment she experienced while in training. She later learned the drill sergeant in charge of the sexual harassment/assault response and prevention program where she trained had been charged with soliciting a 15-year-old online who turned out to be a police officer.
Because she was 30 at the time, “I was able to push back,” she said. “I can only imagine young women when they are 18 having that fear when they are sexually harassed,” said Mata, executive director of La Colmena, a New York group that organizes immigrant workers.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced last week that he would recommend to the Department of Defense that its inspector general conduct an “full, independent” review of the slaying of Guillen and related circumstances.
Her family has said it will have a private meeting with President Donald Trump on July 29, followed the next day by the introduction of the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill in Congress, according to reports.
Military values “were my mother’s values”
In a meeting with LULAC and Democratic Reps. Sylvia García of Texas and Gil Cisneros of California, McCarthy said he wants to strengthen the Army’s relationship with LULAC and the Hispanic community.
He also announced plans to for a commission to review Fort Hood’s command culture. LULAC will help pick some members of the commission.
Campos-Palma, 32, a child of Honduran and Guatemalan immigrants, said she saw her own mother, a Honduran immigrant, in the tearful pleas of Guillen’s mother and family.
“I saw the pain of immigrating to this country you believe in, only to have it fail you,” said Campos-Palma, currently a political strategist and consultant. The former Air Force counter-terrorism analyst has called for congressional scrutiny as well as steps to tackle sexual assault and harassment in the military.
Campos-Palma said the military taught excellence and integrity and service before self — something she had heard before growing up.
“I’ve often said Air Force values were my mother’s values,” Campos-Palma said.
She said her mother would tell her to always tell the truth and give to others. Her mother would also say, “Siempre tienes que hacer la mejor que puedas en todo lo que hagas” — “You always have to do the best you can in all you do.”
“In the military I saw sexism, I saw ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Campos-Palma said. “”I feel my mother upheld those core values more than the Air Force did.”