By ACACIA CORONADO Report for America/Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Maria Valentine says she was just months into her training at Fort Hood, a U.S. Army base in Texas, in 2006 when a sergeant with a history of alleged harassment toward other soldiers wrote her up after she complained that she didn’t want him touching her during body mass measurements.
She said authorities promised the disciplinary report would be wiped from her record if she didn’t make a formal complaint. Valentine’s decision not to file one would haunt her years later when she learned another woman had accused the same sergeant of rape.
Valentine is one of five women — two active duty soldiers, two veterans and one civilian — who spoke to The Associated Press about experiencing harassment, assault or rape by soldiers at Fort Hood, the other four since 2014.
Current and former soldiers have taken to social media with their own accounts of sexual assault and harassment at the base following the disappearance and slaying this year of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, whose family members say was sexually harassed by the soldier who eventually killed her.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Valentine said after learning about Guillen’s story. “That was the environment. I live with the regret that I did not go through with the complaint.”
Maj. Gabriela Thompson, a Fort Hood spokeswoman, told the AP she had no information about Valentine’s allegation.
Members of Congress launched an investigation of Fort Hood in September after Sgt. Elder Fernandes was found dead on Aug. 25 hanging from a tree in Temple, Texas, months after reporting sexual harassment.
Guillen and Fernandes are among 28 soldiers at the base to have died this year, including five homicides and six suicides, according to Army data. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy says that based on Fort Hood’s average of 129 violent crimes between 2015 and 2019, it has one of the highest violent crime rates among Army installations.
The Associated Press typically doesn’t publish the names of sex abuse victims, but two women who said they were sexually assaulted by soldiers at Fort Hood decided to speak on the record to describe what they say is a disturbing culture at the base. Many victims have become connected by sharing their experiences using the hashtag #IAMVANESSAGUILLEN.
Among them is Deborah Urquidez, who told the AP she was raped by the same sergeant, Staff Sgt. Roberto Jimenez, Valentine said harassed her more than a decade earlier.
Urquidez said her relationship with Jimenez in 2014 began consensually, but that later he raped her while a friend desperately tried to break into the room to stop him. Then came months of stalking, threatening messages and a lengthy battle in military court in which he was found not guilty, according to court documents obtained by the AP. Urquidez was given a temporary military protective order against the sergeant for an “alleged sexual assault.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs considers her permanently disabled after she reported the rape and the trauma, which included multiple suicide attempts, according to documents obtained by the AP.
“There was never justice for me,” Urquidez said. “In any other world, what more evidence do you need?”
Jimenez later filed for a protective order against Urquidez. A Fort Hood spokesperson said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command investigated and the accused was acquitted of all charges following a military court martial in 2017. He remains on active duty at Fort Bliss. Officials from Fort Bliss did not provide comment from Jimenez.
But Fort Bliss said the base holds the same standards against sexual harassment and sexual assault as the U.S. Army and takes all reports seriously and investigates them quickly.
Kaitlyn Buxton, a civilian, said her partner, Brandon Espindola, then stationed at Fort Hood beat her numerous times and raped her in 2018 at their off-base apartment in Killeen. On one occasion at the barracks, he pinned her down and repeatedly punched her in the face while she screamed for help, Buxton said.
A Fort Hood officer went with his wife to their apartment during one altercation after Buxton called for help. Buxton said members of Espindola’s chain of command saw her body bruised on more than one occasion.
The Killeen Police Department eventually granted Buxton a protective order and charged Espindola with assault with bodily injury and assault by strangulation, but records show he bonded out and the case was closed.
Buxton said military police have taken no action on a separate case she filed in 2018, which was briefly closed and then reopened this past August. Espindola has since been discharged from the Army on unrelated matters.
“The whole process has been a constant victimization,” Buxton said. “No matter what I do, my voice is not being heard.”
Sean Timmons, Espindola’s attorney, said his client “maintains his innocence to all allegations and charges and believes they are fabricated.” The Killeen Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. A Fort Hood spokesperson said they had no information on this allegation.
According to a federal complaint, the soldier who killed Guillen, Aaron Robinson, died by suicide in July when confronted by police. Natalie Khawam, who represents the Guillen family, told the AP that Guillen shared with family members that a soldier of superior rank walked in and watched her when she was showering. Khawam said Guillen was too scared to file a report.
McCarthy said though it is believed Guillen faced other kinds of harassment at Fort Hood, officials have found no report or evidence that she was sexually harassed. Since then, an independent inquiry of command climate has been ordered at the Texas base, in addition to the ongoing investigation into the command response to Guillen’s disappearance and death.
In a press conference the morning after Fernandes’ body was found, Lupe Guillen, the younger sister of Vanessa Guillen, said Fernandes was an example of why her sister did not report the harassment she experienced.
“How many more must die at Fort Hood for them to be held accountable?” Lupe Guillen said. “How many more have to be sexually harassed?”
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who is among the members of Congress investigating Fort Hood, coauthored the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act. It aims to expand measures aimed at preventing sexual assault and harassment involving U.S. military personnel, including codifying sexual harassment as a crime in military law and removing decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault and harassment out of the chain of command.
“The voices of those survivors have never been louder or more clear,” Speier said. “This is the military’s ‘#MeToo moment.”
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.