The family of a Fort Hood soldier found hanging from a tree demanded Congress investigate the base on Wednesday, saying he had accused a superior of sexual assault before he went missing almost 10 days ago.
The death of the soldier, Sgt. Elder N. Fernandes, 23, has brought renewed scrutiny of Fort Hood, a sprawling Army complex in Central Texas and the home base of several soldiers, including Specialist Vanessa Guillen, who have died this year. The police said results of an autopsy were pending and that they had not officially ruled Sergeant Fernandes’s death a suicide.
The body was found about 30 miles from Fort Hood in a brush area near railroad tracks in Temple, Texas, on Tuesday. There was no sign of foul play, said Cody Weems, a spokesman for the Police Department, and the police said they believed the body belonged to the sergeant.
Sergeant Fernandes was last seen on Aug. 17 at a residence in Killeen, Texas, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command said in a statement. He did not report to work the next day.
Sergeant Fernandes’s mother, Ailina Fernandes, said her son had recently been admitted to the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center for about a week, and had been sending her regular updates. She last heard from him on Aug. 16, when he promised to call the next day.
The family said they did not know why Sergeant Fernandes was admitted to the medical center, but believed it had to do with psychiatric reasons. They said Sergeant Fernandes had reported sexual assault by a superior and that he was retaliated against after having spoken out.
“We are both heartbroken and sickened by this tragedy,” Natalie Khawam, a lawyer for the family who also represented Specialist Guillen’s family, said in a statement. “Elder signed up to serve our country, he did not sign up to be sexually assaulted by his sergeant, and then bullied and hazed for reporting it.”
Lt. Col. Christopher Brautigam, a spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division, confirmed there was an open investigation related to allegations Sergeant Fernandes made concerning “abusive sexual contact.”
“The chain of command takes all allegations of sexual harassment and assault seriously,” Colonel Brautigam said. He said the unit’s sexual assault response coordinator had been “working closely with Sergeant Fernandes, ensuring he was aware of all his reporting, care, and victim advocacy options.”
Sergeant Fernandes, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist, was transferred to a different unit within his brigade “to ensure he received the proper care and ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals,” he said.
The search for Sergeant Fernandes gradually expanded over the past week, and officials said they scoured “the entire division area, to include motor pools, parking lots and headquarters.” Investigators said on Aug. 21 that they believed the sergeant “left Fort Hood on his own accord,” and two days later said that soldiers had visited hotels and hospitals in Central Texas as the search widened.