• Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

A Year of Heartbreak and Bloodshed at Fort Hood

KILLEEN, Texas — A 20-year-old soldier from the Fort Hood Army Base in Texas was shot at a strip club and died outside a convenience store on the first of March. Thirteen days later, another Fort Hood soldier was shot and killed in a triple homicide that also left his pregnant girlfriend and a former soldier dead.

Then in May, a soldier was arrested and accused of breaking into her former boyfriend’s apartment, shooting him and attacking him with a hammer. Six days later, a soldier was shot to death and his Jeep Renegade was found engulfed in flames nearby. In June, the body of a soldier missing since 2019 was discovered in a field. The search for another missing soldier ended later that month when her dismembered body was found near a river.

This has been a year of bloodshed and heartbreak at Fort Hood in the central Texas city of Killeen. A string of suicides, homicides, fatal accidents and criminal behavior has left residents at the base and its host city stunned and bewildered, and turned one of the country’s largest military installations into one of the most troubled.

For the 36,500 soldiers at Fort Hood, the homeland has been deadlier than the battlefront. Since 2016, more troops from Fort Hood have died in homicides on and off the sprawling Army base than have died in combat zones.

The deaths of Fort Hood soldiers have gained international attention in recent months after the slaying of Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Army specialist the authorities say was killed on base by a fellow soldier who later took his own life. But the handful of high-profile cases are a small fraction of an alarming death toll this year that Fort Hood leaders are struggling to understand.

Fort Hood’s overall death rate this year is only slightly higher than at other large Army bases. But no other base has seen so much murder, suicide and violent crime in the span of just a few short months. The base so far this year has seen five homicides, seven suicides, eight accidents, two illnesses and five deaths that are still under investigation.

The killings this year far exceed the number of homicides at other bases. Fort Bragg in North Carolina, with 50,377 troops, has more soldiers than Fort Hood. But it has had one homicide this year.

“We need some answers,” said Latrece Johnson, the mother of Specialist Freddy Delacruz Jr., 23, who was killed in the triple homicide in March and whose accused killer was arrested last month. “They’re supposed to protect and serve, but how can they protect and serve when their own are getting killed and brutally murdered?”

Image“We need some answers,” said Latrece Johnson, the mother of Specialist Freddy Delacruz Jr., seen in a family photo.

The past few months have seen some of the Army’s deepest internal problems laid bare at Fort Hood: troubled soldiers taking their own lives; troops subjected to sexual harassment and bullying; young soldiers killed in preventable accidents or sudden bursts of violence. Critics say that commanders have been slow to respond to signs of emotional and psychological problems among lower-ranking soldiers amid a military culture that has tended to overlook conflicts that happen far from the battlefield.

Army leaders last week took their most aggressive steps yet in response to the deaths, as pressure from lawmakers and relatives of victims continued to build. The base commander, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, was removed and denied a planned transfer to Fort Bliss in El Paso as a division commander, the Army announced.

It said one of the Army’s most senior commanders, Gen. John M. Murray, would open an investigation into the Fort Hood leadership’s handling of Specialist Guillen’s case, building on the work of an independent review committee that was looking at the climate and culture at the base.

In Congress, members of the House of Representatives announced on Tuesday that they would launch their own investigation into the “alarming pattern of recent tragedies” at Fort Hood.

In a letter to the Secretary of the Army, Ryan D. McCarthy, the two representatives directing the inquiry said that he himself had acknowledged the problem during a briefing at Fort Hood last month. “The numbers are high here. They are the highest, the most cases for sexual assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation of the U.S. Army,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Some military mental health experts said the situation demands immediate attention.

“I just find this very worrisome,” said Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general who was a top medical officer at Fort Hood in the early 1980s. “I think if I were the commander, I’d be paying attention to this. Is this a sign to us that this military has been under such extreme stress after 18, 19 years of deployments?”

No clear single reason explains the rash of deaths and violence.

An Army base is a kind of city of its own — a self-contained ecosystem that spreads out for miles with tens of thousands of soldiers, their family members and private contractors. Fort Hood is physically larger than New York City. Violence and suicide are inevitable in such a vast world.

Only one of the five military homicides this year occurred on the base itself. The city of Killeen is also seeing a slight uptick in homicides, with 21 so far this year, up from 16 in 2019.

Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

“I think there are more things happening to soldiers because there are more soldiers that live here,” Chief Charles Kimble of the Killeen Police Department said. “Say if you were in Pennsylvania and everybody there was a steel mill worker. You would probably deal with a lot of steel mill workers. In the city of Killeen, there are a lot of people related to the military. I think over all it’s a safe place to live for Fort Hood soldiers and the community alike.”

Fort Hood officials said that the number of homicides this year was an anomaly compared with other years and that the overall number of deaths was a concern. Since January 2016, there have been 159 noncombat deaths of Fort Hood soldiers, including seven homicides and 71 suicides.

The independent review committee was established by the secretary of the Army following the death of Specialist Guillen, who told friends and fellow soldiers that she had been sexually harassed but who officials said had not made any formal sexual harassment complaints. Federal investigators said that she was struck on the head with a hammer by a soldier in her unit, Specialist Aaron D. Robinson, and that he and his girlfriend dismembered and burned her body.

Both male and female troops have described a culture of sexual harassment and bullying at Fort Hood that had been overlooked for years. Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, whose death was ruled a suicide after his body was found hanging from a tree last month, had reported an incident of abusive sexual contact, officials said.

A Fort Hood spokesman said that the leaders of the base took the mental health of soldiers seriously, and that there were no specific signs that mental health issues there were any different from those at other Army bases.

With roughly 40 percent of the base’s population between 18 and 24 years old, “Fort Hood is a reflection of society’s youth,” the spokesman, Sgt. Maj. Joey Thompson, said in a statement. “Thus, our soldiers’ backgrounds, resiliency skills and coping mechanisms are as varied as one might find among young people in any small city or on any college campus.”

Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Fort Hood and Killeen have been shaped and in some ways defined by violence. The base and the city have been the scene of three mass shootings — the 1991 massacre at a Luby’s cafeteria, the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and the 2014 Fort Hood shooting by Specialist Ivan A. Lopez.

The deaths in recent months have given many in Killeen a sense that they are reliving that past trauma, this time in slow motion.

Two soldiers — Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, and Specialist Francisco Gilberto Hernandez-Vargas, 24 — died two weeks apart in what appeared to be drowning accidents in the same lake. Private Morta died on July 17, the same day soldiers gathered on base at the Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel to honor Specialist Guillen. Thirteen days later, they assembled once more at the chapel to remember Pvt. Gregory Scott Wedel-Morales, who went missing last year but whose body was found in a field in June. No one has been arrested in his killing.

The wooded area where Specialist Guillen’s body was found has become a large memorial filled with flowers and candles. Twenty-four miles away in Killeen, a smaller memorial for Private Wedel-Morales grows in a secluded field in a residential neighborhood, six miles from the apartment complex where Specialist Delacruz was shot six times in March. Mr. Delacruz was shot just a few blocks away from where Specialist Robinson killed himself as the authorities approached after identifying him as the suspect in Ms. Guillen’s death.

Days before the base was caught up in the search for Sergeant Fernandes last month, the nearby Bell County Jail in Belton was holding 17 active-duty members of the military, including Adrianna Jean Veal, 28, accused of shooting her former boyfriend in his apartment before striking him with a hammer. He survived, but she was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

“It should be the safest place on earth — an Army base,” said Kim Wedel, the mother of Private Wedel-Morales. She expressed frustration that it took Specialist Guillen’s disappearance for the Army and the police to focus resources and attention on her son’s case. “They didn’t bother to look for him. They chalked it up to AWOL and let it go.”

The Fort Hood deaths reminded some mental health experts of a cluster of violent behavior at Fort Carson in Colorado more than a decade ago. Those events show just how elusive answers can be in trying to identify the root causes of death and violence in the military.

From 2005 to 2008, 14 soldiers at Fort Carson were accused of taking part in a series of unrelated homicides and attempted murders. The Army conducted an in-depth study, but researchers concluded that no single factor could explain the cluster.

The study, released in 2009, found that a number of personal, environmental and military-unit issues may have played a role in the violence, including soldiers’ previous criminal behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and combat exposure and intensity. That combination “may have increased the risk for violent behavior” in some of the soldiers, the study concluded.

At Fort Hood, some of the relatives of current and former soldiers who were killed this year were united in their grief, as well as their anger and dismay. They said the Fort Hood leadership had ignored their complaints, and their quest to understand why so many soldiers were dying.

“I got a letter and that’s it,” Ms. Johnson, the mother of Specialist Delacruz, said. “That’s not good enough for me. All I got was a letter sending condolences.”