Hours before Fort Hood officials confirmed the death of Sgt. Elder Fernandes, the attorney for his family called for an independent investigation into the soldier’s disappearance and death.
“We are calling for a congressional investigation as soon as possible,” Natalie Khawam told Military Times Wednesday afternoon. “We want to make sure the family gets the information they deserve.”
At a press conference at Fort Hood, officials confirmed that Fernandes, 23, whose home of record is listed as Brockton, Mass., was found near Lake Polk in Temple, Texas.
Khawam said the family is asking for information about investigations into whether Fernandes, 23, was sexually assaulted before disappearing Aug. 17, and why he was hospitalized for nearly a week before his disappearance. Khawam said she spoke earlier Wednesday with Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Rep. Steven Lynch, all Democrats from Massachusetts, Fernandes’ home state.
“I am heartsick for Sergeant Elder Fernandes’ family and his hometown of Brockton,” said Warren in a statement. “I am working with my colleagues in the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation to demand a full, transparent investigation into this tragedy and the conditions at Fort Hood. Elder was a son, a brother, and a U.S. soldier, and his family deserves justice.”
Fort Hood public affairs officer Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam said in a statement earlier this week that there is an “open investigation of abusive sexual contact” involving Fernandes.
“The unit sexual assault response coordinator has been working closely with Sgt. Fernandes, ensuring he was aware of all his reporting, care and victim advocacy options,” Brautigam said in the statement. Fernandes had been transferred to another unit “to ensure he received the proper care and ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals,” he said.
The call for action comes on the heels of a letter sent Tuesday by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, to acting Defense Department Inspector General Sean O’Donnell repeating their July 2 call for an investigation into the disappearance and killing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén.
Guillén’s body was found in July after her disappearance in April. A fellow soldier killed himself after being confronted by police the day 20-year-old Guillén’s remains were found, officials said. A 22-year-old civilian woman is charged with helping that soldier dispose of Guillén’s body.
There will be a press conference at 4 p.m. in Tampa to discuss the Fernandes case, said Khawam. Guillen’s relatives, who are also represented by Khawam and were visiting her in Tampa, will also be there, she said.
Fernandes’ body was found about 30 miles from Fort Hood, the Army base in central Texas where he was stationed, Fort Hood officials said Wednesday afternoon.
Fernandes was last seen in Killeen on Aug 17.
According to a Fort Hood media release:
When he was reported absent on Aug. 18, Soldiers from his unit initiated a thorough search for him, both on and off post while cooperating with the Killeen Police Department and U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) in an attempt to find him. The unit distributed his photograph, searched motorpools, parking lots, barracks, and headquarters buildings. Members of his unit visited local hotels and hospitals throughout Central Texas trying to find him as they expanded their search efforts.
The unit is cooperating with local authorities from the cities of Killeen and Temple as this incident remains under investigation.
Fernandes is the third soldier from Fort Hood to go missing in the past year. Two have been found dead this summer.
Temple police received a medical call at 5:36 p.m. saying a male had been seen near some railroad tracks, according to the statement. When officers arrived, they determined the man was dead.
Foul play is not suspected, police said, but the investigation is ongoing. His identification was found with the body. Forensic confirmation of the identification is pending and an autopsy has been ordered.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Fernandes family during this challenging time,” Temple Police Chief Shawn Reynolds said.
Fernandes was reported missing by Killeen and U.S. Army police on Aug. 19. He was last seen Aug. 17, when officials said a superior dropped him off at his house. Fort Hood officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Isabel Fernandes said her nephew was happy in the Army and had just renewed his contract until 2024. But she said things changed when, according to the accounts they have gathered from multiple people close to Elder Fernandes, he filed a sexual-assault claim against a superior on May 11. She said the family has also learned he was bullied, harassed and hazed when he was moved to a new unit following the assault.
Army Criminal Investigations Division special agent Damon Phelps confirmed Wednesday that Elder Fernandes reported that someone had “reached out and touched his buttocks.” Phelps said an investigation was completed, no witnesses were found and the allegation was determined unsubstantiated. Officials declined to give the identity of the accused, who they said took a polygraph test.
Officials said in a previous statement that Fernandes was transferred to a different unit within the brigade following the report and they are unaware of reports of bullying or hazing.
According to Isabel Fernandes, the family was told by Army officials that a different superior signed her nephew’s hospital release. The superior dropped him off outside of a house belonging to a former roommate of Elder Fernandes.
But Fernandes never made it to the friend’s door.
The Army and the Fernandes family had asked the public for help finding the missing soldier.
Fernandes’ mother, Ailiana Fernandes, and aunt Isabel Fernandes spoke to The Associated Press late Monday, less than a day before the police announcement. His mother said she last heard from her son on Aug. 16, the evening before he was set to be released from Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, where he was getting psychiatric care. He told her he would call the next day, but she never heard from him again, she said.
Isabel Fernandes said the family has not been told the reason for his stay in the psychiatric wing at the Army medical facility or whether it was voluntary. She said the family has not seen his medical records due to privacy protections.
“I am saddened that another soldier who served the country has been destroyed by sexual assault and sexual harassment and this toxic culture in the military that exists,” said Khawam.
In a visit to Fort Hood earlier this month, U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the central Texas base has some of the highest numbers of sexual assault, harassment and murder. He ordered an independent probe of Fort Hood in July, after authorities said Guillen was slain.
A soldier since 2016
Fernandes entered the Army in September 2016 as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist and has been assigned to the 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB), 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division since April 2019, according to the media release.
Fernandes’ awards and decorations include the Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Army Service Ribbon.
“The Wagonmaster Family is heartbroken with the news of Sgt. Fernandes’ passing,” said Col. Patrick Disney, commander of the 1st Cav. Div. Sust. Bde. “Since his absence was reported, we have made a significant, concerted effort to search for him throughout Central Texas. We are grateful for the outpouring of support and assistance we received as we worked to find him. We send our deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his Family and friends.”
Khawam told Military Times she learned about the probable discovery of Fernandes’ remains while dining in Tampa, Florida, with Guillen’s family.
“Last night, Vanessa Guillen’s sisters flew into Tampa,” she said. “I told them to come here, take a little getaway.
Shortly before 10 p.m., Khawam said she received a phone call that the Army had called the Fernandes family and asked to meet them at the Killeen police station, near Fort Hood, to talk about the case. In subsequent phone calls, the family told Khawam that Fernandes’ body had been found by a railroad employee about 30 miles east of Fort Hood. Fernandes was hanging from a tree, she said. His military ID was in his pocket and his driver’s license in a backpack near his body.
Khawam said that after finishing dinner, she informed Guillen’s sisters about the discovery.
“Mayra Guillen told me she wanted to vomit after hearing the news,” said Khawam. “I did, too.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.