Family members of a soldier who grew up in Brockton are calling for a congressional investigation of Fort Hood after their loved one went missing Aug. 17, and following the deaths of two other soldiers in the past year, the family’s attorney said Sunday.
Sergeant Elder N. Fernandes, 23, was last seen by members of his unit Monday at a residence in Killeen, Texas, and did not come to work Tuesday, according to the Army. He was the survivor of sexual abuse, according to the Army, and had been reassigned to another unit in his brigade to “ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals.”
His mother and other members of Fernandes’s family traveled from Massachusetts to Texas to help search for him, said Natalie Khawam, an attorney representing the family. On Sunday afternoon, the family was scheduled to meet with officials at Fort Hood, she said.
“We need a congressional investigation. That base has to be turned upside down, everything has to be looked at, every person has to be interviewed,” Khawam said in a phone interview from Florida Sunday afternoon. “We want to know why it’s so toxic.”
Khawam said Fernandes was sexually assaulted in April inside a supply room at the base, where a superior grabbed Fernandes’s buttocks.
“They are not there to be bullied or hazed, they are there to serve our country,” she said of soldiers at the base.
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Brautigam, a spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division, said in a statement Sunday that the Army continues to make finding Fernandes a priority and remains concerned for his well-being.
“Sergeant Fernandes did report an incident of abusive sexual contact and that there is an ongoing law enforcement investigation by US Army [Criminal Investigation Command] into that report,” Brautigam said Sunday. “The chain of command takes all reports of sexual harassment and assault seriously.”
An update will be provided when the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command completes its work and “all parties are informed of the results and progress of the investigation,” Brautigam said.
Khawam said the family is concerned for his well-being, but Army officials have also warned his loved ones that he will be arrested for going absent without leave if he is found.
Brautigam said Fernandes’s duty status is currently absent without leave, but it is administrative in nature and “does not imply that the Soldier has done anything wrong or illegal.”
“His Family and his leadership just want to see that he is safe and be in a position to help provide for his well-being,” Brautigam said.
Fernandes’s aunt, Isabel Fernandes, said in a Friday interview that a superior officer had contacted the family on Aug. 14 and said Fernandes had not reported to work that day.
Family members called Fernandes, and he told them he was hospitalized and would be discharged on Aug. 17, she said. Fernandes was discharged that day from the hospital, she said, and his staff sergeant said he had dropped off her nephew at his former residence. But his former roommate there said later that he had not seen him, she said.
Khawam said Sunday that since Fernandes went missing, volunteer searchers and soldiers have been looking for him with the help of dogs and posting fliers bearing his photograph.
“A lot of people are just determined to put the posters out because we just believe, we are hoping, that he is just hiding,” Khawam said.
“We are actively searching for Elder. We are looking forward to finding him, letting him know he is protected, letting him know that I will represent him against the Department of Defense, against Fort Hood, and against the man who sexually assaulted him,” Khawam said in a phone interview. “There is no room for anyone, male or female, to be sexually harassed or assaulted while they are at work, especially when you are serving our country.”
Khawam also represented the family of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen, 20, who had gone missing April 22. Guillen’s remains were found on July 1 about 20 miles from the base,
The remains of another Fort Hood soldier, Gregory Morales, 24, were found June 21 near the base.Morales had been reported missing on Aug. 20, 2019. Officials suspect foul play in Morales’s death, which remains under investigation.
Guillen was bludgeoned to death by a fellow soldier who killed himself when confronted by police after her remains were found. A civilian woman was charged with helping to get rid of Guillen’s body.
Investigators do not believe Fernandes’s disappearance is tied to the deaths, the Army has said, nor is foul play suspected.
Last month, Army officials said they would conduct an independent review of the command climate at Fort Hood.
In a previous interview, Isabel Fernandes said her nephew Elder lived in Cape Verde until he was about 8 or 9, and his family immigrated to the United States and moved to Brockton, where he lived before joining the Army.
“The entire family’s trying to find out where he is,” Isabel Fernandes said in a phone interview Friday night. “We all love him, we miss him, and we need him home with us.”
The Army asks anyone with information to contact the Fort Hood Criminal Investigation Command at 254-287-2722, the Fort Hood Military Police at 254-287-4001, or their local police department. People can also submit information anonymously at www.cid.army.mil/report-a-crime.html.
Globe correspondents Jeremy C. Fox and Breanne Kovatch contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.