The family of Sergeant Elder Fernandes learned late Tuesday night that the young soldier’s body had been found hanging from a tree about 25 miles from Fort Hood, from which he disappeared more than a week ago, the family’s lawyer said.
A person walking near a railroad track in Temple, Texas, spotted Fernandes’s body at about 5:40 p.m. Central time. Investigators knew it was him because a black backpack holding the sergeant’s driver license was found nearby, said Natalie Khawam, the family’s lawyer.
Fernandes’s mother and aunt who went to Texas to look for him were en route to the city east of Fort Hood, Khawam said.
“Our worst nightmare has happened. One of our own, Sergeant Elder Fernandes has been found dead today,” Khawam said in a statement to The Boston Globe late Tuesday night. “We are sickened by this tragedy that has happened one too many times. We are heartbroken for Elder Fernandes’s family.”
“We will not stop until we find out what happened to Elder,” the statement said. “We must demand a Congressional Investigation of Ft. Hood. We must protect our soldiers!”
When Ailina Fernandes flew to Texas last week out of concern for her son, she was in the dark about so much.
The Brockton mother did not know her son had reported a sexual assault by a superior officer or that the 23-year-old had since been traumatized and harassed and grown suicidal. She did not know he had been reassigned to a new unit within his brigade for his safety.
She knew her son had been hospitalized since Aug. 11, but she didn’t know why. Her son had been cryptic in their daily phone conversations, saying he needed to “clear his mind” and would call after he was discharged. But he never did.
Earlier Tuesday, just a couple hours before her son’s body was found, Ailina Fernandes told The Boston Globe in an exclusive interview that she last spoke to her son on Aug. 16. When she didn’t hear from him after that, she called the base and found that he had been discharged from the hospital on the 17th and hadn’t been seen since a staff sergeant dropped him off at his off-base home. When Elder Fernandes didn’t show up for work the next day, his mother decided to buy a plane ticket.
“I just can’t go back to Boston without my son,” Ailina Fernandes said by telephone. “I need answers. I can’t resume my life not knowing.”
In a disturbing series of disappearances, Elder Fernandes was the 10th soldier to vanish from Fort Hood in a year. Five of the cases have been deemed unsolved homicides, according to the nonprofit Missing People in America.
Elder Fernandes was the second soldier since April to go missing amid allegations of sexual abuse. The remains of two missing soldiers were discovered off base June 21 and July 1.
In a statement issued before Fernandes’ family confirmed his death, the Army said that finding the soldier and “resuming the care he was receiving before his recent absence remains the top priority of the 1st Cavalry Division.”
“We continue to believe Sgt. Fernandes left on his own accord and there is no connection between his disappearance and any other ongoing cases at Fort Hood,” military officials said in a statement, posted to Facebook.
INFORMATION SOUGHT ON #MISSING SOLDIER— Fort Hood (@forthood) August 21, 2020
If you have seen ELDER FERNANDES or have info as to his whereabouts, call #FortHood MPs @ 254-288-1170 or US Army CID @ 254-287-2722. He is 5'4", 135lbs and last seen wearing black #Army PT shorts, T-shirt and red shoes.#Missing #BOLO pic.twitter.com/u7DdMru92n
The family was skeptical.
“Elder is a lovely family boy, he wouldn’t run away without letting us know where he is at,” his mother said earlier Tuesday.
Even though the family now knows circumstances took a dark turn for the young soldier on the gigantic Army base halfway between Austin and Waco, they insisted he would not harm himself. They believed their loved one was scared and hiding.
If Elder Fernandes did hurt himself, it is the Army’s fault, his mother said.
“If the Army drove Elder that crazy to make Elder do something like that, then shame on them, because that is not the Elder I know,” she said, her voice quaking with emotion.
Fernandes, a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist, enlisted in the Army in 2016, with an aim to follow in his father’s footsteps as a law enforcement officer. His father is a police officer who lives in Cape Verde, where his son was born.
Fernandes’ social media presence showed a tender-hearted young man with a passion for online gaming, “Warzone” in particular, a penchant for “Rick and Morty” T-shirts, and a deep loving bond with his family, especially his curly haired 3-year-old niece and nephew.
There was also a glimpse of a pained inner struggle scattered amid the SpongeBob memes he had posted. Fernandes made light of the effects of untreated anxiety and depression. He expressed dissatisfaction with military service that feels like “pointless busywork.”
In May, Fernandes explained one of his coping mechanisms in a meme. It said: “I isolate myself when I go through [expletive]. My misery don’t like company.”
“That’s how people kill themselves,” a friend commented. Fernandes didn’t respond.
Among his many references to diminished morale, Fernandes posted an advertisement for an Army green T-shirt that said: “Can’t lower morale if there isn’t any.”
After Specialist Vanessa Guillen went missing from the base April 22, Fernandes posted a notice about a $15,000 reward for information leading to the 20-year-old soldier’s whereabouts.
Before Guillen’s remains were found on July 1, buried about 20 miles from the base, her family launched an awareness campaign and media blitz for help finding her.
Fernandes’ family has hired the same lawyer, Natalie Khawam.
“People have to be held accountable for what they’ve done here,” Khawam said Tuesday. “Enough is enough. These families all need answers.”
Fernandes reported in May that a male superior staff sergeant had groped him in April in a supply closet.
“Knowing Elder, it would be a struggle for him to report it,” his mother said.
A spokesman for the 1st Calvary Division has confirmed an open investigation of “abusive sexual contact” involving Elder Fernandes.
Things got worse for Fernandes. The sexually abusive staff sergeant started following and harassing Fernandes, Khawam said. Superiors at his job bullied him. Fellow soldiers teased and picked on him, she said.
“He was being set up to fail,” Khawam said. “They were impugning his reputation and doing their darndest to ruin his career.”
Isabel Fernandes, the soldier’s aunt, turned to Massachusetts Representative Liz Miranda, a fellow Cape Verdean, for help. Miranda in turn collaborated with US Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and state Representative Gerard Cassidy. The lawmakers called for a congressional investigation and pressured the Army to provide information to the Fernandes family.
The military won’t tell Elder Fernandes’s mother any details about his hospitalization, citing patient privacy rights under HIPAA.
When Fernandes’s mother got to Texas she located her son’s car, packed and ready for his move into a new apartment. She hadn’t known her son was planning to move. She also learned he had never picked up the keys.
Ailina Fernandes filed a missing persons report with the Killeen Police Department on Aug. 19.
Miranda said she was able to spread the word about Fernandes among the tight-knit Cape Verdean community and elevate the story to a national level with a viral reach online. “It was important to share that one of our own was in danger and missing,” she said.