The emerging profile of Sergeant Elder Fernandes’s final months at Fort Hood in Texas shows a pattern of circumstances particular to male victims of sexual assault in the military, especially those who report their abuse — retaliation, isolation, and ostracization, followed by a downward emotional spiral.
That appears to have been the 23-year-old Brockton soldier’s plight, according to his family, their lawyer, and Fernandes’s friends.
Fort Hood officials confirmed Fernandes’s death Wednesday evening. They also disclosed that after a full investigation, allegations of sexual assault that Fernandes had lodged against a superior had not been upheld.
Military leaders expressed heartbreak over a soldier they valued and considered a leader who took a troubling turn.
“The chain of command was very much invested in [Fernandes],” Lieutenant Colonel Justin Redfern said. “He was a person that we felt was exemplary. As the behavior changed, the chain of command became very aware.”
The family learned Tuesday night that the body of Fernandes, who had been missing since Aug. 17, had been found, hanging from a tree 25 miles from the base. He had reported a sexual assault by a male superior in May. Afterward he endured bullying and harassment, relatives said.
“This is not right, this is our baby, he was the pride of the family,” Isabel Fernandes, the soldier’s aunt, said Wednesday afternoon, speaking haltingly between sobs. “We need answers; we need more than the [expletive] coverup they’re giving us.”
Police said his death did not appear to involve foul play. But it was the latest in a string of missing persons cases and deaths to emerge from Fort Hood. Just seven weeks ago, the remains of Specialist Vanessa Guillen were found near the base. She went missing in April.
“Fort Hood has never had a reputation of being particularly troubled or squeaky clean,” said Victor Hansen, a professor and expert in military policing and justice at New England Law Boston.
The massive base is akin to a major city. Fort Hood is 335 square miles with a total population of 217,000 counting troops, families, and others. That’s slightly more people than Worcester.
Crime on bases, including sexual assaults, is not uncommon, experts say. The troubles there are “less an issue of reputation and more of an issue of size,” Hansen said. The sudden spate of soldiers from the base disappearing and turning up dead, however, raised major concerns, he said.
“Commanders at all levels at Fort Hood should be questioning whether they have a healthy command climate or if there are deeper issues,” said Hansen, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2005.
Fernandes’s mother and aunt, who had traveled to Texas to search for him, took the news of his death Tuesday night with heart-wrenching screams, said the family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam. Both relatives remain in Killeen, outside the sprawling base, where the soldier had been stationed since earlier this year.
By Wednesday morning, family members who had been seeking their son were seeking answers. They said their time in Texas had been met with silence and contradictions by the military.
The Army would only confirm details and events after the family learned about them independently, Isabel Fernandes said.
“We got nothing from the Army; everything we got was from Elder’s friends,” she said. “They’re hiding behind HIPAA and their own policies.”
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Brautigam, spokesman for the First Cavalry Division, declined Wednesday to speak about Fernandes’s death or the family’s criticisms.
Later at the press conference, officials said the investigation into Fernandes’s allegations that a male superior staff sergeant had groped him in a supply closet had closed.
The suspect took a polygraph test, investigators couldn’t locate corroborating witnesses, and the allegations were not sustained, officials said.
“The unit and the Army takes all those reports seriously,” Brautigam said. “We don’t want that in our formation.”
The same is true, he said, of bullying, hazing, and harassment, retribution that friends told Fernandes’s family he had faced after reporting the alleged sexual abuse.
“Hazing and bullying are contrary to our values, and we investigate all reports when we get them and we take it very seriously,” Brautigam said, noting that Fernandes had never lodged any complaints about alleged harassment or bullying.
But soldiers are often hesitant to report abuse because they could be perceived as disloyal, said Hansen, the military expert.
“That’s an obligation of command and all leaders in the military, to be sensitive and aware and not wait for people to report to you,” he said. “Know your unit. The military expects commanders to be a little more proactive and engaged.”
And if you’re a man reporting sexual abuse by another man, Hansen said, a whole host of complications come into play.
Statistics have shown that more men were victims of sexual abuse in the military than women, and active service members who report it, regardless of gender, are more than likely to experience retaliation, according to the Department of Defense surveys from 2012 and 2015.
Alarm and suspicion over Fernandes’s death and the soldier disappearances from Fort Hood streamed into the comments on the official Fort Hood and III Corps Facebook page.
“You guys need to check into this more on these missing soldiers cause something is really strange about this place,” one woman wrote.
“For the love of God stop with the killings protect our soldiers please someone do something,” another person said.
Someone else simply posted: “Fort Hood is a Disgrace.”
Meanwhile, condolences poured in from local lawmakers.
“Elder Fernandes was a patriot who chose to serve his country, but when he needed support, his country failed him,” Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, said in a statement. “No parent or family should lose a son in this way. The Army did not uphold its obligation to keep Sergeant Fernandes safe.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, also a Democrat, said: “I am heartsick for Sergeant Elder Fernandes’s family and his hometown of Brockton. . . Elder was a son, a brother, and a US soldier, and his family deserves justice.”
Markey and Warren both called for an independent investigation into the conditions at Fort Hood, a full accounting of what went wrong, and accountability for “those who failed him.”
Police in Temple, Texas, where Fernandes’s body was found, offered few additional details about the case. The body was near railroad tracks. It had been there for “for some period of time,” they said in a statement.
Originally from Brockton, Fernandes was an Army chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist. He enlisted 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.
Descanse em paz Elder.— Representative Liz Miranda (@RepLizMiranda) August 26, 2020
State Representative Liz Miranda, also a Cape Verdean, shared her grief on Twitter. In Portuguese, she wished for Fernandes to rest in peace: “Descanse em paz Elder.”
“May we all wrap hands around this family and bring justice to Elder,” Miranda said in another tweet. “I’m incredibly devastated. We must do something around what is and has been happening in Fort Hood.”