The family of slain soldier Spc. Vanessa Guillen is seeking $35 million from the Army after a federal appeals court ruled in a separate case that the military isn't shielded from civil liability in sex crime cases.
In a claim against the Army filed Friday, Guillen's family said she "suffered mental anguish, fear, emotional distress, physical injury and death as a result of sexual harassment, rape, sodomy, and physical assault," according to a copy of the claim provided by the family's lawyer.
"Our goal is to let all the survivors know you not only have a voice, but you have a right to be made whole," the lawyer, Natalie Khawam, told Military.com. "You finally have recourse as a sexual assault victim."
The family is seeking $10 million for wrongful death and $25 million in personal injury claims.
The Army did not immediately respond to Military.com's request for comment on the claims.
In June 2020, Guillen's dismembered remains were discovered after she had been missing for more than two months from Fort Hood in Texas. Authorities allege she was murdered by a fellow soldier who killed himself when law enforcement tried to arrest him. A civilian woman identified as the suspect's girlfriend has been indicted on 11 counts related to allegations she helped cover up the murder.
After she went missing, Guillen's family said she had told them she had been sexually harassed by her superiors. While the service initially denied there was any evidence to support that, an Army investigation later confirmed she was sexually harassed on at least two occasions, though not by her alleged murderer.
"The ARMY must be held accountable for their wrong doings, the way they handled their investigations early on, the way that Vanessa was treated, the nightmare she had to endure while serving and only trying to serve her country and her family," Guillen's sister, Mayra Guillen, wrote in a statement included with the claim. "Vanessa did not deserve to be sexually harassed, to be murdered, to be cut up into pieces, to be burned, to be buried into cement....to be taken away from life, from her family. We have a huge emptiness in our hearts ever since."
The claim was filed a day after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the long-standing legal principle known as the Feres Doctrine does not bar a retired Army colonel from suing a former Air Force general over her allegations of sexual assault.
The Feres Doctrine generally prevents service members from suing the government over injuries suffered as a result of their military service.
In its ruling, the three-judge panel wrote that they "'cannot fathom' how the alleged sexual assault in this case could ever be considered an activity 'incident to [military] service.'"
While the ruling is binding on courts only within the Ninth Circuit, appeals court rulings are often followed across jurisdictions, Khawam said.
Further, should the Army not respond to or deny the claim, Khawam said the Guillen family plans to sue not in Texas, but in California, where the service's investigation confirmed Guillen was sexually harassed at Fort Irwin while she was there for field training.
"Why is it that any other survivor of sexual assault -- if you're a U.S. gymnast or you're an actress under Harvey Weinstein or a survivor of [Jeffrey] Epstein -- why is any other survivor of sexual assault able to be made whole through compensation ... but not when you join the military?" Khawam said. "Finally, the 9th Circuit got it right."
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Army has six months to respond before Khawam can file a lawsuit.
"I'm looking forward to going before a federal jury and telling them everything that happened," Khawam said, adding that she also encourages other service members to file claims after the 9th Circuit ruling. "I want to see soldiers and veterans and victims not be so afraid of this David and Goliath system that we had all along. This is an opportunity to finally be made whole and bring justice to their lives."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.