‘An Empty Presence in My Chest’: Vanessa Guillen’s Family Calls for Change in the Military

While the country erupted in fireworks last week to celebrate America’s independence, one family spent the week leading to the holiday driving between Houston and Washington to demand justice for their daughter and sister, a Fort Hood soldier who had been missing for months.

The soldier, Specialist Vanessa Guillen, 20, was last seen on April 22 at Fort Hood, in central Texas. On Friday, the specialist’s older sister, Marya Guillen, got a call from the Army, confirming what the family already suspected: Bones, hair and other remains that had been found at the end of June were her sister’s.

“There’s not much that can explain what we’re feeling,” said Ms. Guillen, who turned 22 the day of the call. “I feel an empty presence in my chest. And for my mom, it’s hard to accept. But she knows that heaven has an angel.”

The Army’s call came more than two months after Specialist Guillen disappeared, and after her family’s push for an investigation into her disappearance, and her accusations of sexual harassment, caught the attention of lawmakers and a presidential candidate.

Ms. Guillen did not want to tell her mother the news about her sister’s remains until they were back home in Houston. But she said her mother could not shake a gut feeling that something was wrong, showing signs of a panic attack in Washington, where an ambulance had to be called.

Now, her mother, Gloria Guillen, 42, and the rest of the family is leaning on their Catholic faith and hope for change in the military.

“It’s horrible,” her mother said in Spanish last month. “It’s maddening. As her mother, I cannot sleep.”

The family spent the weekend praying for Specialist Guillen, and a priest visited their home. An area of the house was set aside in her memory, adorned with photos, flowers and medals celebrating her honors, soccer tournaments and marathons.

Faith was a cornerstone in Specialist Guillen’s life. Her memorial is surrounded by figures of angels and the Virgin Mary, whom Specialist Guillen wore on a gold necklace that she never took off.

“At the end of the day, God does things a certain way, and if he needed a good soldier with him, Vanessa was the one,” Mayra Guillen said. “That’s the way we see it.”

A federal complaint filed Thursday alleges that another soldier — who fatally shot himself with a pistol as the police approached him — killed Specialist Guillen and then hid her body in a large box. The soldier’s girlfriend is accused of helping him dismember and burn Specialist Guillen’s remains.

Partial remains were found on June 30 near the Leon River in Bell County, Texas. The family confirmed on Sunday night that they belonged to the specialist.

“I do feel that, at this point, it was kind of like God’s gift to me that we were able to find her despite the circumstances,” Ms. Guillen said. “People can go missing for years, and having no answers is much worse than having the answer.”

Specialist Guillen had dreamed of being in the military since childhood, her relatives said. Only a decade ago, she was playing with her brother’s toy pistol and telling her mother she wanted to defend her homeland.

Her mother expressed her hesitations, but Mayra Guillen supported all of her little sister’s ambitions. One day, when Specialist Guillen was 18, she told her family she had enlisted in the Army. Her mother cried, but Specialist Guillen tried to reassure her in Spanish, “Without a doubt, mami, it is the law of life.”

Ms. Guillen was the only person who could fly to the ceremony when her sister completed training. She remembers being lost on the field, turning around and seeing Specialist Guillen run toward her in tears. They spent the day together, and Specialist Guillen told her sister how she aspired to get a spot stationed in Germany.

She said she was ready to serve, a willingness to help that extended among her five siblings in small, daily exchanges. Mayra Guillen would help her sister get ready for dates with her boyfriend, helping her pick out outfits and put on makeup.

Specialist Guillen was an athlete, No. 20 on her soccer team and a member of the track and cross-country teams. She enjoyed lifting weights and almost always chose a salad at restaurants, Ms. Guillen said. But at her last meal with her sister, with family at their home, they had Whataburger.

The search for Specialist Guillen unfolded in the public eye, catching the attention of celebrities, members of Congress and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, said she was drafting a bill in Specialist Guillen’s name that seeks to create an independent agency for members of the military to report sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Ms. Guillen said that, as the oldest of the siblings, she had taken on the responsibility to look after them, and was spearheading the process to get answers in her sister’s disappearance.

She said she wanted the federal government to make meaningful changes for military members who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault and do not know where to turn.

“I just hope none of this is in vain,” she said.

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