BROCKTON, Mass. – The leadership at the U.S. Army base Fort Hood in Texas created an environment that led to the death of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, who was missing for more than a week until he was found dead Tuesday, the family’s attorney said.
Fernandes was found hanging from a tree in Temple, Texas, about 28 miles from the Fort Hood base.
“They don’t know what happened — whether it was suicide or whether murder. But I’m gonna tell you, what they did to him, the blood on their hands, it’s a form of murder,” said attorney Natalie Khawam.
Temple police, the lead agency investigating because of where Fernandes was found, said foul play is not suspected in his death.
Khawam said that after Fernandes reported in May that he had been inappropriately touched by a male superior, he was transferred to another unit, and word spread within the new unit, leading to harassment, belittling, bullying and hazing.
A 2018 survey of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel found an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact, a 38% increase from 2016. Another 2018 estimate found 6% of women in the military endured some form of sexual assault, and almost 1% of men were victimized.
“He was humiliated, he was embarrassed, he couldn’t even tell his mom, he didn’t want to tell anyone,” Khawam said Wednesday. “He was afraid. He was ashamed by this.”
Special Agent Damon Phelps said the investigation was completed “fairly recently” and that Elder Fernandes was made aware of the outcome.
“Our investigation has been completed and is with the command and their legal team with further action for further action, if warranted,” he said. “I can also share that the subject of the investigation took and passed a polygraph investigation and we found no witnesses that could corroborate Sgt. Fernandes’ allegations. There was a thorough legal review and the allegations were unsubstantiated.”
Fernandes’ leadership team at Fort Hood spoke Wednesday from the base, expressing grief and “heartfelt sympathy” for his family, friends and fellow soldiers.
“The chain of command was very much invested in this trooper,” said Lt. Col. Justin M. Redfern, 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion commander. “It was a person that we felt was exemplary. As the behavior changed, the chain of command became very aware of the change in his behavior.”
Redfern said command staff noticed behavioral changes, without getting into specifics, in mid-March.
“The change in behavior preceded the unwanted touching, it preceded some of the other indicators that we saw,” he said.
Fort Hood takes every report of sexual assault seriously, said 1st Cavalry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater, and said Fernandes’ report was investigated by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.
“We’re concerned about every soldier. That’s the bottom line,” Broadwater said. “We are a team … We, as an organization, strive our best each and every day to make sure that we’re taking care of and being the best leaders that we possibly can for our soldiers.”
However, Fernandes’ aunt, Isabel Fernandes, told The Enterprise (part of the USA TODAY Network) on Tuesday that her nephew was harassed in his new unit.
“According to his friends, since that happened, they kept harassing him,” she said. “The person he accused was following him. They were hazing him, torturing him, making his life impossible.”
On Aug. 17, Fort Hood leaders said Fernandes was dropped off at a residence in Killeen, Texas, after a week-long stay at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. Isabel Fernandes said her nephew was hospitalized because he felt suicidal and promised to call his mother when he was released.
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Col. Patrick Disney, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade, said Fernandes was dropped off at the home in Killeen that he asked to be taken to. He was last seen smoking a cigarette outside the residence, but never seen making it safely inside, he said.
Vanessa Guillen and other reports of harassment
Fernandes’ report follows allegations made by Spc. Vanessa Guillen, 20, who went missing from Fort Hood in April and whose body was found dismembered in July. Guillen reported being sexually harassed before she went missing.
“They’re not dying from terrorism or ISIS, they’re dying from sexual assault and sexual harassment when they report it, because the system is broken,” said Khawam, who also represents Guillen’s family. “And we’re not going to continue to allow our soldiers to go about dying on our own turf.”
Guillen’s sisters attended Khawam’s press conference Wednesday.
“People are asking — why didn’t Vanessa report the sexual harassment? Why didn’t she? Fernandes is an example that this not only happens to women, but to men,” said Lupe Guillen, the youngest sister of Vanessa Guillen. “He’s an example that, if you speak up, if you report it, look what happens to you.”
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More than one-third of women soldiers at Fort Hood reported sexual harassment in a June survey, Army officials told a House subcommittee last month.
Calling for investigation
U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston, said an independent investigation is needed into the deaths of Elder Fernandes and others who have died in recent months at Fort Hood.
“The circumstances of yet another soldier’s death at Fort Hood raises important questions that must be answered,” he said in a statement.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both Massachusetts Democrats, are supporting the congressional investigation.
Markey said that when Elder Fernandes needed his country’s support, it failed him.
“No parent or family should lose a son in this way,” he said in a statement. “The Army did not uphold its obligation to keep Sergeant Fernandes safe. There must be an independent investigation into Sergeant Fernandes’s death so we can get a full accounting of what went so terribly wrong and hold accountable those who failed him.”
In July, the Army named an independent panel of five experts to investigate whether personnel at Fort Hood and the surrounding community have allowed a climate of sexual harassment and discrimination to flourish.
The independent review will be led by Chris Swecker, a lawyer and former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the Armed Services Committee, is preparing legislation to reform prosecution of sexual assault cases in the military. The measure would also direct the Government Accountability Office to examine the Pentagon’s sexual harassment and assault prevention and response programs and its procedures for responding to missing troops.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY. Follow Cody Shepard on Twitter: @cshepard_ENT.