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Fort Hood soldier likely found dead, attorney says, after disappearance, sexual assault claims

A soldier assigned to Fort Hood who was missing was likely found dead on Tuesday, his family’s attorney said, adding to the toll of soldiers at the Texas installation who have vanished or died 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 base, the Army said. His family later arrived in Texas from Massachusetts to aid in the search.

Fernandes previously reported an “incident of abusive sexual contact” that is being investigated, said Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam, a spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division. Army officials believe Fernandes left on his own accord after speaking with soldiers in his unit.

Fernandes’s family said the circumstances were suspicious. Fernandes was hospitalized at Fort Hood from Aug. 11 to Aug. 17, his family said, the last day he was seen, and they grew concerned when he did not make a phone call he promised to his mother. His blue BMW was found at his unit parking lot, his family said.

Army officials called the Fernandes family on Tuesday evening and asked to meet in person, family attorney Natalie Khawam said. Army officials told them a body was found hanging in a tree in Temple, about 30 miles east of the base. A black backpack at the scene contained a military ID card and a driver’s license that belonged to the soldier, Khawam said.

The Temple Police Department said the IDs indicate 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.

“One of our worst nightmares again has happened,” said Khawam, who is representing the Fernandes and Guillén families pro bono. “One of our own, Sgt. Elder Fernandes, was found dead after reporting sexual assault at 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 experienced a cascade of soldiers this year who have vanished or have been murdered.

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 outside the installation last month. Pfc. Brandon Rosecrans was killed in nearby Harker Heights in May, and Spc. Freddy Delacruz was killed in Killeen in March.

Five suspected homicides of soldiers at Fort Hood between March and June has 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.

Khawam said striking similarities to the Guillén case have appeared. Like the Guillén family, she said, the Fernandes family has felt dismissed, that commanders displayed a lack of urgency and little information has trickled down from officials.

A friend who knows Fernandes told Khawam that the soldier was being harassed and hazed within the unit. Brautigam, the 1st Cavalry Division spokesman, 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, with Killeen police also investigating.

But the family said the Army took too long to get the public involved, with a news release 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—-.”

On July 30, under intense scrutiny from the Guillén slaying, the Army convened an independent panel to review the command climate at the base.

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, but 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.”

Read more:

‘The military’s #MeToo’: Vanessa Guillén’s slaying has many servicewomen revisiting their own deep scars

How a veteran’s idea to solicit donations for a border wall won over Trump supporters — and produced conspiracy charges

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