Walking the path where Fort Hood Pfc. Vanessa Guillén took her final steps — and talking to soldiers who experienced sexual assault on the same base where Sergeant Elder N. Fernandes of Brockton served before his death — was a chilling experience for US Representatives Stephen F. Lynch, Ayanna Pressley, and Katherine Clark.
The three Massachusetts congresspeople, part of a delegation that traveled to Fort Hood last week, spoke about what they called deplorable conditions for service members and their families in a press call Wednesday: soldiers afraid to report their experiences with sexual assault; dismally low morale; an environment in which suicides are often disregarded or treated as a nuisance; a military spouse who found black mold in her baby’s crib mattress and car seat.
The US Army post in Killeen, Texas, has been under scrutiny following the deaths of 28 people, five of which were ruled homicides. The rest were accidents, suicides, deaths related to illness, or cases still under investigation. Fernandes disappeared Aug. 17 after reporting that he had experienced sexual assault, and was found dead 11 days later about 25 miles away from the base. A preliminary autopsy found he had died by suicide.
“We need to address the toxic culture of fear, intimidation, harassment, and indifference, not only on this post but within our military hierarchy. Women and men in every single workplace, and certainly these patriots who are serving our country, must be treated with dignity and respect,” Clark said. “One of the phrases that stuck with me was a soldier who said suicides are treated as an inconvenience. This indifference not only compounds the trauma, but it adds to the stigma and reluctance to seek help.”
Messages to Fort Hood officials were not returned Wednesday.
Pressley said she was shocked to see how service members and their families were living, conditions she likened to what she has seen in neglected public housing: black mold, roaches, rodents, asbestos, and water damage.
“I was ashamed,” Pressley said. “We heard from military spouses who have suffered multiple miscarriages, who are plagued by aggressive asthma and other respiratory ailments, who are living in substandard housing that we know that we have failed to invest in. I think we need to really evaluate our defense spending, our priorities, and we have got to end these endless wars. And that’s not my opinion. That was the plea of the many servicemen and women and their spouses who we spent time with.”
The representatives advocated for the I Am Vanessa Guillén act, a bill named for a 20-year-old soldier found dead in April after telling her family a sergeant on the base was sexually harassing her. The bill would change the way sexual assaults in the military are investigated, taking the case away from a soldier’s chain of command.
Lynch, who represents the district where Fernandes’s family lives, said he was troubled to hear about how the Army exonerated the person that Fernandes said assaulted him.
“They used a polygraph,” Lynch said. “...They never went back to Elder Fernandez, Sergeant Fernandez, to ask him for the details about this; they just exonerated the accused. As most people know, a polygraph is not admissible evidence in court. It’s a subjective process. It can be gamed at times and it can be improperly used.”
Though Fort Hood officials did not return messages seeking comment on Wednesday, Major General Jeffery Broadwater, commanding general, 1st Cavalry Division, said at a news conference after Fernandes’s death that sexual assault cases at the base are investigated by an outside organization.
“From a unit perspective, we take very seriously the obligation to care for our, America’s sons and daughters,” said Lieutenatn Colonel Justin M. Redfern, commander of the 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, at the same press conference last month. “They come to us as adults; they have their own privacy and we have a responsibility to protect their privacy.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.