By Sunday, San Antonio will join other cities including Austin, Houston, Galveston, and Fort Worth in honoring the memory of Vanessa Guillén in mural form. The San Antonio version, however, includes another member of the military who went missing and was later found dead, and points to a larger problem of ongoing trauma and violence at Fort Hood.
Army Spc. Guillén, who was from Houston, was murdered on base in April, allegedly by a fellow soldier she had told family, friends, and Army colleagues was sexually harassing her. Joining her on the mural wall will be the image of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, another soldier who went missing from Fort Hood in August 2019 and whose bones were discovered June 19. Foul play is suspected in his death.
When Air Force veteran Larissa Martinez heard what happened to Guillén, “it definitely just triggered and ignited this feeling of ‘I just want justice.’”
Surviving sexual trauma that occurred during her military service motivated Martinez to eventually found Circle of Arms, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for mental health awareness and breaking stigmas associated with issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Her experience and mission put her in a unique position to raise awareness for the memory of Guillén and Wedel-Morales, and to call attention to ongoing issues in the military of sexual harassment and mental health.
“I want to make sure that we do as much as we can to keep promoting that awareness and just keeping her story going,” she said, feeling a close kinship with Guillén’s experience, “and not letting anybody forget until change is made.”
Martinez put out a call July 7 on social media to find a location, an artist, and funds to create a mural, and by the following day had had secured the Sanchez Ice House No. 2 as a location, Gerardo “Ghost” Cesares as the mural artist, and a donation of paint by businessman Samuel Paez. A post seeking ideas for the mural design received more than 600 responses, but was narrowed down to a collaboration among Martinez, Cesares, and the families of Guillén and Wedel-Morales, who was from Oklahoma.
Cesares, who prefers to be identified as Ghost, put himself forward to paint the mural in part because he understands what the two soldiers might have experienced.
“A lot of the community feels a big responsibility to try and do something about this,” he said. “I felt very deeply for it because I used to be stationed at Fort Hood, and I used to be stationed in that very same unit that Vanessa was in,” he said of the 3rd Army Calvary regiment.
“I know what goes on at Fort Hood every single weekend,” he said, describing the atmosphere of the base as “like Sodom and Gomorrah. … It’s a frickin’ cesspool, man. The general public doesn’t really know about that because, you know, the Army has to uphold its image of discipline.”
As the muralist chosen for the project, Ghost said, “What I’m most excited about is we are starting a conversation about this particular issue in the community, … spreading awareness. … You might piss people off, you might upset people, people might be uncomfortable, but you know what, that’s what is necessary to get people to start talking about a lot of these issues.”
Martinez’s husband, Leroy, also served as an Army staff sergeant at Fort Hood. Martinez said he has told her about an on-base culture tainted by a 2014 mass shooting and suicide, a 2019 sting that revealed a prostitution ring, and other violent crime, including recent shootings in March and May.
“It’s been a long, long time coming that this needed to be out in the open and transparent,” Martinez said, citing growing awareness as one positive result of the Guillén and Wedel-Morales deaths. Martinez agrees with calls for a full investigation of Fort Hood’s culture, including a petition seeking a Congressional investigation, with a separate petition for Wedel-Morales.
Through Circle of Arms, Martinez first organized a July 2 demonstration seeking justice for Guillén at the Army recruitment office near the Park North shopping center. Other protests and vigils followed, joining demonstrations in other parts of Texas. An “I Am Vanessa Guillén” live art action will take place Sunday at 4 p.m. at the San Antonio 9-11 Memorial.
Part of Martinez’s advocacy is helping potential recruits become aware of the military culture they face after enlisting. She held an online discussion June 24 titled Predator in Boots to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, and will hold a second discussion July 25, free to registrants with limited spots available.
To frame the discussion, the Facebook post makes clear “the reality of sexual assault in the military and how the frontline recruiters are not being transparent. We will go over how basic training is a crucial way the military shapes a new recruit into subordination.”
Sharon Castillo is the daughter of Sanchez Ice House No. 2 owners Val and Alice Gutierrez. With a daughter serving in the Navy, Castillo said the issue of sexual harassment is an important one. “We know this kind of stuff happens and we don’t want it to happen anymore,” she said. “And we’re glad that it’s getting the attention that it deserves.”
Castillo is aware that what happened to Guillén could have happened to her own daughter, or any of the other members of her extended military family. “A lot of our youngsters are in the military, nieces and nephews who currently serve in all branches. And they’re all Vanessa’s age.”
The ice house is stationed near Fort Sam Houston and has strong ties to the military, drawing military veterans over its 30 years in the neighborhood. “We figured it was a perfect fit. There was no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she said of the mural.
The building is prominently positioned so that its mural wall will be visible to the multitudes of drivers along Interstate 35.
“We’re hoping that we get justice for both of them, for all of them,” Castillo said. “It’s a tragic incident that happened to Vanessa, and it’s sad that it had to take this to get more people involved and make change. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re hoping for change.”