PLYMOUTH — On April 22, 20-year-old Pfc. Vanessa Guillen was reported missing at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas. For months, she had told her family about sexual harassment she was enduring, but never made an official report.
On June 30, Guillen’s buried remains were discovered at a site 20 miles from the base. The main suspect in her murder has since committed suicide.
When Thomaston resident Mary Bradford-Harris read Guillen’s story, it struck a nerve deep inside.
While serving as a private in the Army Reserves at the age of 29, Bradford-Harris was the victim of “military sexual trauma,” which can include everything from sexual assault to unwanted sexual comments and leering. Like Guillen, Bradford-Harris never filed an official report.
“I am still dealing with it to this day,” said Bradford-Harris, now 54. “It’s very, very difficult. I struggle every day with this. It affects you mentally. It affects you physically. I have post-traumatic stress disorder because of it. It affects your family, your friends. It’s an awful thing to go through.”
Plymouth American Legion Post 20 and the American Legion Women’s Veterans Outreach Committee for Connecticut will hold a vigil to support victims of military sexual trauma Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Legion Hall, 245 Main St., in Terryville.
“It’s to remember our female veterans and what they’ve experienced in the military,” Bradford-Harris said. “We don’t want to be silent anymore.”
In 2018, 13,000 women and 7,500 men were sexually assaulted or raped, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. For women, it was the highest level since 2006. Some 59% of the assaults were committed by someone of a higher rank, 24% by someone higher in the chain of command.
An estimated three-quarters of sexual assaults are not reported.
Bradford-Harris said she knew another woman in her unit had gone through similar issues months earlier.
“She got transferred out of the unit to a different job altogether,” Bradford-Harris said.
She didn’t want that to happen to her, which is why she stayed silent.
“I was afraid,” she said. “You don’t want to be ostracized or called a troublemaker.”
Guillen’s murder was the impetus for her to organize Saturday’s vigil. Now the Legion’s department vice commander for the 6th District of Connecticut, Bradford-Harris brought her idea to Post 20 Commander Keith Golnik and Department Commander Dennis Beauregard, who were both supportive.
“(Guillen’s murder) has triggered me, as well as many other female veterans,” Bradford-Harris said. “What happened to her is absolutely horrendous and it’s not just her. Many other soldiers have gone through this.”
Bradford-Harris, who has filed a claim with the Veterans Administration over her case, said veterans who experienced military sexual trauma can get help by calling the Legion at 860-436-9986 or the Department Service Office at: (860) 594-6600
(This was a article featured in the Waterbury Republican American July 31, 2020)