By Mella Bettag, Jose Medina, Lauren Smith
The murder of Vanessa Guillen sparked outrage across the U.S. and led to a surge of questions surrounding women’s deaths in the military including: the correlation between sexual assault or sexual harassment and murder, deaths ruled suicides by the military but disputed by the family, and the obvious disproportionate murders and sexual assaults of women of color.
Sexual Assault and Harassment
Since Vanessa Guillen’s murder and sexual assault, many have called into question the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment.
In response to the surge of support for victims of sexual assault and harassment, the social media hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen was created. Similar to the #metoo hashtag, #IAmVanessaGuillen is used for military women to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault while serving in the armed forces.
While conducting our research of suspicious deaths of women in the military, we found that of the 53 women included in our research, 13 percent had experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault during their military service.
Unfortunately, Vanessa Guillen is not the first case to receive attention for sexual assault and harassment.
Just last year Senator Martha McSally, the first American woman to fly in combat, reported that she had been raped by a superior officer, and in November 2019, Army Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser filed a federal lawsuit against vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, John Hyten, for sexually assaulting her on numerous occasions while working at U.S. Strategic Command in 2017.
Every two years since 2006, the Department of Defense releases a report on the prevalence of sexual assault in active duty. Additionally, about every year the DOD releases an annual report on sexual assault in the military that details sexual assault report rates and the programs focusing on sexual assault prevention.
According to the 2019 report, the DOD saw a three percent increase in sexual assault reports from the 2018 figure. Hopefully, this increase in reporting is a positive sign suggesting that more active military members feel supported and comfortable with coming forward after experiencing sexual assault or harassment.
However, the report also states that “no sexual assault prevalence study for the active force was required or conducted this year.” The 2018 report detailing the prevalence of sexual assault in the active force shows a 38 percent increase from 2016.
With increased pressure on the military to properly address sexual assault and harassment in their ranks and to support the women and men who come forward and report these crimes, the 2020 annual report will hopefully continue to reflect increased reporting rates and show more transparency about sexual assault and harassment in the military.
Disputed and Unsolved Cases
Of the 54 cases we studied, approximately 11 percent involved some sort of inconsistency between Army conclusions and the opinions of those who knew the deceased.
After an investigation, Army officials declared the death of Amy Tirador to be a suicide. According to Army reports, Tirador began struggling with her work at Forward Operating Base Caldwell in eastern Iraq.
This led to mental struggles for Tirador, which were exacerbated by alleged marital problems—her husband, Sgt. Mickey Tirador, had recently moved to the same base. According to the military, all of this came to a head on Nov. 4, 2009, when Tirador was found in a boiler room with a bullet in her head.
The story the Army tells about Tirador’s death doesn’t ring true to many of those that knew her.
When asked about marital issues by investigators, Mickey Tirador became frustrated, saying “my wife and I were very close.” Both Mr. Tirador and Colleen Murphy, Amy Tirador’s mother, don’t believe the killing is a suicide because it didn’t match Tirador’s character. Murphy described her as a “very happy, well-adjusted person.”
Both Mickey Tirador and Murphy have pursued further investigation into Tirador’s death.
The supposed suicide of Ciara Durkin, a 30-year-old woman stationed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2007, was just as surprising for the Durkin family.
Durkin, according to her family and friends, was passionate, and never would have killed herself. In fact, the family believes that Durkin’s death was a murder because about eight months before her death on Sept. 28, 2007, Durkin had told her friends that a coworker of hers pulled a gun on her. Despite this, the Army still ruled Durkin’s death a suicide.
Keisha Morgan’s family has also not accepted that their daughter, a 25-year-old stationed in Baghad in February 2008, committed suicide.
The Army stated that Morgan had overdosed on Army-prescribed antidepressants. Her mother didn’t even know she was diagnosed, and said she couldn’t see her daughter hiding that from her. By her mother’s account, Morgan was “outgoing and very happy.”
Many of the disputed cases involved issues with military investigations and communications.
In several of the cases we studied, families have reported that Army investigations were ambiguous and incomplete. LaVena Lynn Johnson’s father, John Johnson, said that the Army “didn’t give [him] any information.”
Several families have also said that officials were unresponsive, cold, and callous, especially after families had inquired for more information. Morgan’s mother, Diana Morgan, has said that officials have discouraged her from trying to discover more about her daughter’s death.
Several families have continued to take action for the deceased.
In the case of Kamisha Block, a 20-year-old stationed in Camp Liberty Iraq, the Block family met with local and Army officials, called the Department of Justice and the FBI, and filed a Freedom of Information Act request in attempt to get more information. The Block family also disputes the facts of Kamisha Block’s case after discovering four more bullet wounds in her body than the Army reported.
“It’s just lie after lie after lie after lie,” said Shonta Block, Kamisha’s sister.
The recent killing of U.S. army soldier Vanessa Guillen has led us to take a closer look at previous cases of suspicious deaths of women of color in the U.S. military.
Two cases of women of color stood out the most due to their similarities. Both Army Private LaVena Lynn Johnson and U.S. Army Spc. Kiesha Marie Morgan were women of color, whose deaths were ruled a suicide, and whose family’s believe they were victims of sexual assault.
In 2005, LaVena Lynn Johnson was found dead on a military base in Balad, Iraq. U.S. Army officials ruled LaVena’s death a suicide and informed the Johnson family of LaVena’s passing. After taking a moment to grieve the loss of a loved one, the Johnson’s questioned the legitimacy of the U.S. Army’s investigations.
The Johnsons were not informed of how LaVena committed suicide when the U.S. Army told the Johnsons about LaVena’s suicide. Months later, Army investigators concluded that LaVena died by shooting herself in the mouth with an M-16 rifle.
The Johnsons believe LaVena wouldn’t take her own life based on a phone call they had two days before her death. LaVena’s peers even described her as someone who was happy and healthy.
The Johnsons demanded to see the evidence of LaVena’s suicide and worked with various organizations and local officials to assist them with the retrieval of evidence, reports, and photos of the incident.
The Johnsons painstakingly reviewed the evidence and found that LaVena had a broken nose, black eye, loose teeth, a gunshot wound that seemed inconsistent with suicide, and burns from corrosive chemicals on her genitals.
Based on the evidence they investigated, the Johnsons believe LaVena was sexually assaulted and beaten to death. The Johnsons are still searching for clear answers from the U.S. Army but the U.S. Army insists that LaVena’s death was a suicide and nothing more. LaVena’s family has faced years of vague and inconclusive answers on her own death.
On February 22, 2008 Army Spc. Keisha M. Morgan was found dead in Iraq. The U.S. Military notified Diana Morgan, Keisha M. Morgan’s mother, of her daughter’s passing with little to no explanation as to how and why. This frustrated the mother and made her seek out her own investigation on her daughter’s death.
Six months later, the Army investigators concluded Keisha M. Morgan’s death to be a suicide from an overdose of her military-prescribed anti-depressants. Her mother disputed this conclusion because she was never informed of her daughter being diagnosed with depression. She recalled her daughter being happy and communicative, always being open about her experience with the Army.
Ms. Morgan recalls a time when Keisha called her and told her about a concerning incident involving a fellow soldier who drugged her drink at a local bar. Keisha said she couldn’t recall how she left the bar and how she arrived at her room. She even said she found the suspected soldier in her room when she woke up. This led Ms. Morgan to suspect sexual assault had a role in her own daughter’s death, not suicide.
Ms. Morgan continued her investigation by examining photos of the scene. She found that her daughter’s room was torn to pieces as if there was some type of struggle. Ms. Morgan has known her daughter to be organized and that she would never leave her room in disarray. When Ms. Morgan tried to inquire further, the U.S. Army insisted she stop.
Ms. Morgan is still trying to find answers to her daughter’s death. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army has been unwilling to be clear and has instead become indifferent toward Ms. Morgan’s concerns. It’s an indication of the U.S. military’s lack of empathy toward grieving families of color.
Vanessa Guillen’s murder is the latest example of the U.S. military’s inability or unwillingness to protect women, especially women of color. The U.S. military fails to be transparent with grieving families and discourages families from investigating further. Perhaps the U.S. military is too caught up with protecting and serving their own image, that they fail to protect and serve the most vulnerable within their ranks.
In a world where women, especially women of color, are constantly mistreated both socially and physically it is up to the U.S. military to take responsibility for sexual assaults and murders of women that happen within their operations. They must work to console the grieving families and victims, when it comes to investigating incidents and holding suspected soldiers accountable.
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9