When Belleville resident and Army veteran Lucy Del Gaudio saw news stories about how Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Hood, had vanished after telling her mother about sexual harassment by a fellow soldier, she tried not to look too closely.
She didn't know what kind of painful memories would be triggered, as a survivor of military sexual trauma. It wasn't until a friend with whom she had served called her and said Del Gaudio reminded her of Guillen that she began to follow the case. Instead of triggering bad memories, it pushed her into action.
On Monday, she led a vigil in memory of Guillen in front of the Belleville veterans memorial on Union Avenue.
"I can't thank you enough for being here this evening and supporting every single person: those who have died unjustly and never got their justice, for Vanessa, but for all the survivors, because there are a lot of us out there that don’t have voices," Del Gaudio said. "And we tonight are giving them a voice."
More than two dozen people attended the somber remembrance, holding lit candles and observing a moment of silence for Guillen's memory.
Guillen's remains were found in July, three months after her disappearance. She would have turned 21 on Sept. 30.
The suspect, Aaron David Robinson, fatally shot himself before police could arrest him, and Cecily Anne Aguilar, believed to be Robinson's girlfriend and the estranged wife of another soldier, is accused of conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
Noel Rodriguez and Nicole Gonzales learned of Guillen's disappearance in June, after Rodriguez turned on the news and saw Guillen's family protesting outside Fort Hood in Texas.
"We are Hispanic military allies," Rodriguez said. "We have family who have served as far back as the Korean War, so the case with Vanessa really struck a nerve on so many levels."
Sexual assault in the military
Guillen's experience was reminiscent of the trauma Del Gaudio went through. She was also 20 when she was raped by a superior while serving in the military. She joined in 1990 before moving to the Reserves and then leaving in 1998.
"If you didn't know me, you wouldn't have known I had served," Del Gaudio said. "I basically didn't discuss the assault with anyone until 2014, when I was diagnosed with PTSD."
Guillen told her mom she didn't want to report the harassment to her superiors because she had watched fellow female soldiers' complaints get brushed aside, Del Gaudio said. After Del Gaudio's assault, she was called "belligerent, aggressive" and told her conduct "unruly."
"But I had no choice," Del Gaudio said. "They weren't helping me. An investigation never took place. They basically thought I was trying to destroy someone's career. My career meant nothing to them."
Del Gaudio said military members are most vulnerable to sexual assault when they are in their first few years of enlistment, just as she and Guillen were.
Mayor Michael Melham, who spoke at the vigil, said Del Gaudio has "been a tireless advocate for women in the military and sexual violence and assault."
She began working with veterans' organizations in 2015 and in 2017 was asked by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., to sit in on a roundtable discussion about issues faced by female veterans in New Jersey. All of it led her to become a fierce advocate for survivors of military sexual trauma.
After Guillen's body was found, Del Gaudio participated in a call to action and testified before members of Congress on July 29 about her experience.
Every year, the Department of Defense publishes a report on sexual assault in the military. The report for the year that ended Sept. 30, 2019, showed a total of 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving a service member as a victim or as the accused, a 3% increase over the year before.
"Sexual assault is an underreported crime among civilian and military populations, meaning that the number of individuals who report the crime to law enforcement falls far short of the number of individuals who have likely experienced the crime," the report stated.
In her testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Del Gaudio said there is no safe reporting mechanism, no protection for the victims and no accountability for predators.
U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., will introduce the #IAmVanessaGuillen Bill on Wednesday. It will allow active-duty service members to report sexual assault and harassment to a third party rather than their chain of command.
Del Gaudio said the effect of sexual assault and harassment is why she fights.
"One of the things I really stress is that it's not just a women's issue, it's a men's issue, it's a military issue," Del Gaudio said. "Everyone is being affected."
She said an assault on men is often dismissed under the guise of hazing and that more men reported being sexually harassed or assaulted in the military than women.
"It's awful," Del Gaudio said. "Assault is assault."
Kaitlyn Kanzler covers Essex County for NorthJersey.com.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @KaitlynKanzler8