A soldier missing from Fort Hood was probably found dead, his family’s attorney said Wednesday, adding to the toll of service members at the Texas installation who have vanished or died in murky circumstances in recent months.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, was last seen Aug. 17 by members of his unit at a home in Killeen, outside the sprawling post, the Army said. His family later arrived in Texas from Massachusetts to aid in the search.
In a news conference Wednesday, Army officials said Fernandes reported he was a victim of a sexual assault in May. An investigation determined it was unsubstantiated. Fernandes recently learned the results of the inquiry, officials said.
Army officials had previously said Fernandes may have left the area on his own accord after speaking with soldiers in his unit.
Lt. Col. Justin Redfern told reporters Fernandes was an “exemplary” leader but became troubled in March, suggesting mental health issues. The commander said he believed it was unconnected to the sexual assault allegations.
Fernandes was hospitalized at Fort Hood on Aug. 11 and released on Aug. 17, the last day he was seen, Army official said, but declined to say for what purpose. The family grew concerned when he did not call his mother as promised after his discharge. His blue BMW was found at his unit motor pool, the family told The Washington Post.
Army officials told the family a body was found hanging in a tree in Temple, about 25 miles east of the installation, family attorney Natalie Khawam said. A black backpack at the scene contained his driver’s license, phone and hygiene items, Khawam said. Fernandes’s military ID was in a pants pocket.
The Temple Police Department said the ID indicated that the remains may belong to Fernandes but “no forensic confirmation has been made at this time.” The initial investigation has not found evidence of foul play, the department said.
Khawam is also the attorney for the family of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a soldier who went missing from Fort Hood in April and whose remains were discovered in June.
“They don’t know what happened, whether it was suicide or whether murder. But I’m going to tell you what they did to him, the blood on their hands, it’s a form of murder,” Khawam said in a news conference in Florida on Wednesday, where she demanded a congressional investigation of Fort Hood.
The Fernandes family chastised the Army’s investigation in a Tuesday call with The Washington Post, hours before they received word of the discovered remains.
“Somebody cannot just vanish from the face of the Earth like this. Somebody knows something,” said Isabel Fernandes, an aunt of the missing soldier. “We can’t sleep, we can’t eat. This is beyond cruelty.”
Fort Hood has been gripped by separate killings and high profile disappearances this year.
Investigators said a fellow soldier killed Guillén on Fort Hood and buried her remains in a shallow grave. Police confronted him on July 1, and he fatally shot himself, investigators said.
The remains of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, a soldier missing since August 2019, were found in a field in Killeen last month. Three other soldiers were killed in separate shooting incidents. Pfc. Brandon Rosecrans was killed in nearby Harker Heights in May. Spc. Freddy Delacruz was killed on March 14 and Spc. Shelby Jones was killed in early March.
The five suspected homicides of soldiers at Fort Hood between March and June outpaced the last four years combined, Stars and Stripes reported. Army data has shown more violent and nonviolent crimes occur among soldiers at Fort Hood than at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which hosts thousands more troops.
A friend of Fernandes told Khawam that the soldier was being harassed and hazed within the unit. Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam, a spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division, said Fernandes was transferred to another unit to avoid reprisals from superiors.
“These men and women go through a lot,” Khawam said. “I’m not talking about war here. It’s toxic command.”
Army officials said the search for Fernandes was a “top priority” of the 1st Cavalry Division, with soldiers searching for him on and off Fort Hood and with Killeen police also investigating.
But the family said the Army took too long to get the public involved. A news release was published four days after Fernandes was last seen.
“The Army goes online, posting they helped since day one,” Isabel Fernandes said. “It’s all bull – t.”
On July 30, under intense scrutiny after the Guillén slaying, the Army convened an independent panel to review the command climate at the base. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Wednesday she was “heartsick” and vowed to investigate the Fernandes case and other deaths at Fort Hood.
Fernandes, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist, was born in Cape Verde, a string of islands in the Atlantic west of Senegal. He arrived in the United States as a 10-year-old, his family said.
Friendly and family-focused, he had plans to reenlist in the Army when he visited family for Christmas, his aunt said, and did not reveal any problems with his command.
“He’s a giver. He will put his life on the line to protect others,” Isabel Fernandes said. “He wanted to do something positive for this country.”