AUSTIN, Texas — While murals in Austin and across the country pay tribute to slain U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, Fort Hood officials have announced their own plans to honor the soldier at the post where she is believed to have been killed.
Army officials invited Guillen’s family onto Fort Hood once again Tuesday, asking for their input on design concepts for a gate to be named after their beloved sister and daughter.
“The gate we designated leads to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment area where Vanessa served,” a statement from Fort Hood officials said Tuesday. “The gate is accessed by thousands of soldiers, civilians and families every day.”
Natalie Khawam, the attorney who represents the Guillen family, said on Tuesday that the family appreciates the gesture and the great strides the post’s new top commander is taking to not only change the culture at Fort Hood, but also help protect and respect soldiers.
The post’s former commander, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, was removed from his position in July.
“They told us of all the changes they are making and decided to dedicate the front gate in Vanessa’s name to remind everyone every day what happened so it never happens again,” Khawam said. “Our soldiers need to be protected, they deserve respect and they deserve to be honored for being the selfless heroes that they are.”
Guillen, 20, was last seen working on post in late April. In the months that followed, the Guillen family sought to raise public awareness about Vanessa’s case, holding protests outside of Fort Hood to demand that Army leaders ramp up their search efforts.
Guillen’s remains were found near a river 20 miles outside of Killeen at the end of June. When police confronted a fellow Fort Hood soldier, Army Spc. Aaron Robinson, during the investigation, authorities say Robinson fatally shot himself before they could detain him for questioning
Investigators think Robinson killed Guillen inside a weapons room at Fort Hood the day she disappeared. Guillen’s family also alleges that Robinson sexually harassed her, but Army officials said they had no substantial evidence to support that.
Fort Hood, once known as a staging ground for troops deploying to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has made headlines this year because of a rash of violence by and against soldiers at home.
Army officials have confirmed that 27 soldiers stationed at the post died stateside this year, including five cases of suspected foul play.
By mid-June, Fort Hood was investigating the suspicious deaths of:
— Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, who was listed as absent without leave in August 2019. His remains were found during the search for Guillen. The case is still under investigation and no arrests have been made.
— Spc. Shelby Jones, who was shot at a strip club in Killeen on March 1. Killeen police said the suspect in this case was not charged because the death was considered in self-defense.
— Spc. Freddy Beningo Delacruz Jr., who was one of three found dead with gunshot wounds inside a Killeen apartment. Authorities charged 21-year-old Barnard Morrow with capital murder for all three deaths.
— Pfc. Brandon Rosecrans, who was found with gunshot wounds on a roadside about 20 miles east of Killeen. Brandon Olivares is charged with murder for Rosecrans death.
The death toll at Fort Hood also includes seven suicides, eight deaths authorities have ruled as accidents, two illness-related deaths and five deaths that are still under investigation, according to U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who is leading a U.S. House committee formed to investigate Fort Hood.
Speier’s investigation is one of several still ongoing at Fort Hood, which are tasked with learning more about its sexual misconduct protocols, how it reports missing soldiers, leadership accountability and more.
Khawam said the family is still pushing for the Vanessa Guillen Act to be passed by Congress, which would allow for an outside investigative team to handle reports of sexual misconduct in the military.
“Vanessa’s life was a catalyst for us to implement action to improve trust, discipline and teamwork across our formations,” the statement from Fort Hood said Tuesday.
“A memorial gate in honor of Vanessa — a proud Texan — will serve as a reminder to take care of each other and inspire the next generation of soldiers and the surrounding community.”
©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas