The Puerto Rican journalist told her story using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen and has talked to other female officers who endured abuse while serving in the U.S. military.
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Despierta América reporter Astrid Rivera spoke to People CHICA about being harassed when she was a soldier in the U.S. Army. The Puerto Rican journalist, 36, says she identifies with Vanessa Guillen, the soldier who was murdered at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. Rivera interviewed Vanessa's mother, Gloria Guillen, and her sister, Mayra Guillen, after the soldier disappeared in April. "I identified with her because I was in the army," she tells CHICA. "I didn't disappear, but I saw myself reflected in Vanessa. She was 20 years old, the same age I was when I started in the army. I know what it's like to live in a military base with other soldiers."

Rivera regrets that Vanessa had to die in such a tragic way for the #IAmVanessaGuillen movement to emerge. Many women have used this hashtag to talk about being victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination while serving in the U.S. military. "Violent attitudes and treatment — not from your fellow soldiers, but from your superiors in the army — is something that shouldn't happen," Rivera says. "I remember I would go running and they would call me p***, they called me b***, slut, [and said,] 'You're not going to make it.' They felt that saying these words to you was going to motivate you to get ahead. At that time you think it's normal. You think, 'You know what? You're in the army, this is tough and you have to endure it.' But as the years go by, you realize that violent behavior doesn't help you achieve anything."

Astrid Rivera
Credit: Cortesía de Astrid Rivera

The reporter also says she experienced sexual harassment. "I had a sergeant who always mentioned my butt to minimize my capacity to run in the battalion," she says. "He would say to me, 'You dumb spider, with that big ass you won't be able to run. You will fail your exam.' I stopped eating certain things to see if my butt got smaller and I could run faster."

She was also mortified when she once got her period during training and wasn't allowed to change clothes. "I have endometriosis, so I started to bleed really heavily and I asked if I could please go clean myself," she recalls. "He said no, that I couldn't go until I finished running, that I had to deal with it because if that happened to me while I was in Iraq or Kuwait, during a war, I wouldn't have the opportunity to change and I would have to walk like that — but I wasn't in any of these places. The blood was running down my legs and I felt so much shame."

Astrid Rivera
Credit: Cortesía de Astrid Rivera

Still, Rivera says she is proud of having served her country and the U.S. Army presented an opportunity for her to pay for her journalism studies. "I was motivated to be a soldier because I come from a military family," she says. "My dad was in the military. I have two uncles who retired from the army. I have cousins who are in the army and had a cousin who died in the war in Iraq. I always liked it. I have photos of myself dressed as a soldier when I was a little girl, with my cousins."

Because her time in the army was bittersweet, she created the online platform "From Soldier to Soldier" to interview other female officers about their experiences. "The Vanessa Guillen hashtag has created a movement, a kind of #MeToo, that is very important, especially within the armed forces," she says. "What we are looking for is not just justice for Vanessa, but justice for all those women who have been silenced one way or another, who have had to remain quiet about all those years of abuse."

Rivera posted a live video on Instagram where she interviewed a woman named Tamara, who says she was raped while serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy. "This cannot keep happening. We cannot keep sacrificing the dignity and the lives of our women, especially Latina women, who see [the military] as a great opportunity and as the American dream," Rivera says. "That hashtag of Vanessa Guillen has allowed me — as a veteran of the armed forces and former soldier — to create a community and be able to communicate with other women. So many women have told me their stories. ... I've been able to help them open up and start their healing process, and that's very important for me."

The Emmy winner says many women who have had traumatic experiences in the armed forces suffer from depression and have even considered suicide. "We have to show them our support," she says. "It's time to create a community to help them heal." The journalist does not regret her time as a soldier and appreciates the lessons it taught her. "I learned a lot of things in the army," she says, but "I want to be a voice so that all those women who have gone through a painful situation know they are not alone."