Mexican-American documentary filmmaker Amanda Sarabia attended an event honoring Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén In the summer of 2020 and it led her on a path to use her art to bring to the forefront sexual trauma in the military. Amanda was immediately moved by the stories she heard from the many Latina veterans and active-duty service members inspired by the #IAmVanessaGuillen movement. Guillén’s body was found in June of 2020 after she’d been hammered to death and her body was dismembered and burned, according to an FBI affidavit. Army Specialist Aaron Robinson, 20, and his girlfriend Cecily Aguilar were identified as the two suspects in Guillen’s death and when police went to arrest Robinson, he fatally shot himself. It was later revealed that Guillen’s had endured months of sexual harassment that went unaddressed by her chain of command.
During the event, there were stories of sexual trauma while serving in the military, and many shared that their reports of abuse were repeatedly dismissed by their superiors. The “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act” is a bipartisan bill aimed at creating a more confidential reporting system within the military. But Sarabia saw this as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the cause through the lens of Latina veterans.
“I hold this project dear to my heart, and I believe it will benefit an aspect of our society that needs a radical systematic change,” Amanda tells HipLatina. “Triste and the veteran survivors that I’ve had the privilege to meet over the past year have immensely inspired and impacted my life. They have taught me that our time and voices on this earth are the most precious resources we have,” she says.
After the event, Amanda called on her most trusted colleagues in the film industry to partner with her, and began working on Enemy In the Ranks, a feature-length documentary that follows U.S. Marines veteran and military sexual assault survivor Triste Ordex, whose story she had first heard at the event that initially inspired her to take action.
Triste is an active advocate for military service members who have experienced military sexual trauma and a national organizer for Vets for the People. She is working not just to bring awareness to the issue but to see justice served in the cases of Vanessa Guillén and other veterans. The film also features the voices of other military sexual trauma survivors from various branches of the military, including Krysta Phoumiphat, Active Duty Air Force and Kimberly Sciutto, U.S. Army Veteran, Invisible Combat, both of whom are also working to spread awareness of the pervasive issue.
“I am Vanessa Guillén. I survived it, I barely survived it and it’s something I have to navigate through the rest of my life with,” Triste states in the teaser trailer for the documentary.
Amanda visited four cities since August 2020 which included a trip to Vanessa’s grave in Houston, which she described in a blog post as one of the most challenging parts of making the documentary. “As we stood around her grave surrounded by her family members to celebrate her life, we realized that what we were making is much greater than we thought. We joined a movement…a movement of strong veterans fighting for a cause that we initially did not fully understand,.”
Now instead of just voicing support for military veterans like so many Americans do, Amanda is making it her mission to see them, to hear them and to advocate for them. In America, the norm has become more about hashtag activism
According to the Department of Defense’s annual report on sexual assault in the military, there were 7,816 reported incidents in fiscal year 2020, including 6,290 of those cases occurring during military service. That’s an increase of one percent from the previous year. However, the DoD recognizes that these numbers differ from the “estimated prevalence,” which based on information from 2018, indicates that as many as “20,500 active duty Service members may have experienced some kind of sexual assault.” Those numbers of course are evidence of the fear, trepidation and helplessness that many service members who have experienced sexual assault in the military may feel with regard to reporting the crimes against them to their superiors.
“Sexual assault is an abhorrent violation of an individual’s basic dignity,” said said Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, Executive Director of the Office of Force Resiliency, in a DoD press release from May 2021. ” Over the last 15 years, the Department has enacted new policies and built new infrastructure to address sexual violence, including an integrated violence prevention approach developed in consultation with subject matter experts,” she said. She acknowledges that those policies in and of themselves will not incite change, unless each and every member of the military commits to abiding by them.
That of course, is the crux of the problem. The general public labels all members of the U.S. military as “heroes,” but the reality is that there are criminally minded individuals within the ranks, and they have long preyed on the real heroes of our country, many of whom are women and members of the Latinx community. According to VA-accredited law firm Hill & Ponton, “Veterans from all eras of service–from World War II to those who served more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan–have reported experiencing military sexual trauma,” and yet, military rape law didn’t begin until the 1980s. Many would also say that it wasn’t until Vanessa Guillén’s disappearance and murder in 2020 that the issue of military sexual assault and trauma truly reached the collective consciousness of American society.
While Enemy in the Ranks, which been selected for the Sundance Film Festival 7th Annual Latino Hub Section, is still currently in development, Amanda is determined to see it to fruition. “They [veteran survivors] have made me realize that as filmmakers, our superpower is storytelling. And through my storytelling, I will fight for my veteran survivors in the same way they keep fighting for change within the military—with courage, passion, and like Triste likes to say, ‘taking up space,’ she says. Amanda is currently working on securing funding for the film’s production with a GoFundMe page trying to raise $5,000.
“This project means the world to myself and the team, and our only hope is that it will reach audiences far and wide and open their eyes to the reality and stories of the veterans we honor,” says Amanda. “Their voices will create everlasting change and justice for all. I wanna share their power with other voices and I won’t give up until I see this story through until the end.”