BROCKTON — A 23-year-old US Army sergeant who grew up in the City of Champions was laid to rest by his family, community, and fellow soldiers following a funeral Mass on Saturday, 11 days after he was found dead about 25 miles from his base in Texas.
Sergeant Elder N. Fernandes, who came to Brockton as a child from Cape Verde, was remembered at St. Edith Stein Roman Catholic Church as a generous young man who was devoted to his family and “who looked to the future with hope and possibility.”
“He wanted to live a life of service, of giving himself away for the sake of others,” Deacon Christopher Connelly said during the funeral Mass, which was mostly conducted in Portuguese.
Fernandes’s casket was draped by an American flag, and six soldiers in dress uniforms served as pallbearers.
“Elder did not spend his time in idle ways, his aunt tells me,” Connelly said. “Instead, he spent it with his family — cooking, being with them, playing video games with his brothers, fooling around, and making others laugh.”
Connelly said Fernandes had hoped to study psychology after completing his service, and he read a brief passage written by him.
“One of the most important lessons I have learned from my unit is to strive for greatness and to be the solution, rather than the problem,” Fernandes had written.
Many mourners wore T-shirts bearing a photo of Fernandes over black skirts or trousers. A man at the church door checked their temperatures with an infrared forehead thermometer as they slowly filed inside and sat spaced apart on alternating pews.
Fernandes went missing from Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, on Aug. 17, after he was released from a weekend stay in a hospital. His body was found eight days later. Police said his death did not appear to involve foul play.
He had endured bullying and harassment after he reported a sexual assault by a male superior in May, according to family and friends. He was the 10th soldier to vanish from Fort Hood in a year, and the second 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.
On Friday, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey and Representative Stephen F. Lynch, whose district includes Brockton, called for Fernandes’s death to be included in an ongoing independent review of “the command climate and culture” at Fort Hood.
“Although an Army-led investigation remains ongoing into the cause and circumstances of Sergeant Fernandes’s death, the evidence suggests that the Army failed to give him the proper support and care that he needed while serving at Fort Hood,” the three legislators said in a letter to the review panel investigating Fort Hood.
At Fernandes’s funeral Saturday, local officials said the federal government needs to conduct a thorough investigation, and the community must come together to support the Fernandes family.
“Please continue to support us and the family as we will continue to look for answers as to what happened to Sergeant Elder Fernandes,” said Brockton Councilor Moises M. Rodrigues.
Rodrigues said Fernandes, “unlike many others in our community, or in the communities of inner cities, chose the right path to follow. And that path led him to the United States Army, where he served with dignity and honor until the day he left this world.”
Brockton Mayor Robert F. Sullivan offered the city’s condolences to the Fernandes family.
“Our thoughts, our prayers, our love, our support are with you,” he said. “And as a fellow Catholic, I would ask you to please take comfort in the fact that Elder is now in paradise. He’s in Heaven, surrounded by angels. And you will see him again.”
Earlier Saturday morning, at Russell & Pica Funeral Home on Belmont Street, family and friends gathered to say goodbye to Fernandes, masked and seated in chairs 6 feet apart.
The funeral home did not allow reporters inside, but a livestream video showed a heart-wrenching scene of collective grief, as some mourners sobbed uncontrollably while friends, relatives, and soldiers in dress uniforms greeted Fernandes’s parents.
At one point, an Army officer could be heard asking the family, “Is there anything that we can do for you?”
During the funeral, a Brockton Fire Department engine and ladder truck stood outside the church, with firefighters and police standing at attention. Firefighters stood at attention outside the station on Pleasant Street as the funeral procession passed by, with red lights flashing on their trucks.
Brockton Fire Chief Michael Williams said the department supports all the city’s residents, “especially our military. … And unfortunately this tragedy has brought us out here yesterday and today.”
“It’s a lot to do with supporting the family, letting them know that they’re not alone in this,” Williams said. “Through police and fire, we’ve given our support. I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
The funeral procession had an escort from six members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization of motorcyclists and other patriots, both veterans and those who haven’t served in the military, that provides escorts and flag lines for the funerals of veterans and emergency personnel.
Larry Drum, the organization’s state captain for Massachusetts, said, “It’s all about honoring those that served the country, the guys that are brave enough to put the uniform on.”
“For the family, I hope we bring some kind of comfort to them, in some small way.”