The mother of Sgt. Elder Fernandes of Brockton, whose death at the sprawling Fort Hood base in Texas helped trigger a Pentagon investigation harshly critical of Army commanders, said Tuesday she regrets the findings of a report into violence at the base are too late to protect her son.
But Ailina Fernandes hopes other soldiers will now be better protected as a result of the findings released Tuesday.
“I know it’s not going to bring my son back,’ Fernandes said in a telephone interview Tuesday after the report was released at the Pentagon. “I just hope that all the other families who have sons and daughters at Ft. Hood, they don’t have to go through what I am going through.”
She added: “I just wish they could have seen the problems way before all the lives were lost.”
The commanding officers of Fernandes’ unit, the 1st Cavalry Division, were among the 14 officers and enlisted soldiers at Fort Hood disciplined by Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, an Army spokesman said.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, 1st Cavalry Division commanding general and command sergeant major, have been suspended, pending the outcome of a new investigation of the division’s command climate and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, the spokesman said.
“A suspension is a temporary removal, often pending the results of an investigation. This is an administrative action, not a punitive action,” the spokesman said in an e-mail.
Sgt. Fernandes reported that a superior officer had sexually assaulted him and said he was subsequently harassed, according to family and friends. He was hospitalized Aug. 16 and disappeared that day, according to relatives. His body was found on Aug. 25, hanging from a tree about 25 miles from the base. A preliminary autopsy determined that he had died by suicide.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Fort Hood said the investigation into Fernandes’ death continues. “The line of duty investigation into Elder Fernandes’ death is not complete at this time,” Maj. Gabriela S. Thompson said in an e-mail.
She declined to provide further details, citing the “ongoing investigation.”
According to the Associated Press, this year, 25 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood have died due to suicide, homicide or accidents, compared with 32 last year and 24 in 2018.
Fernandes said she was aware that the independent investigation into Ft. Hood was going to be released, and she has been told the report would call for changes, but she has not yet learned whether the examination will shed new light on the events leading to her son’s death.
“My son was screaming for help and they didn’t do anything,’' said Fernandes who said she went to Killeen Texas on her own to look for her son when the Army would not. “They took their time believing me my son was missing before they started looking for him.”
Along with firing or suspending officers and enlisted soldiers at Fort Hood, the Army is also ordering policy changes to address chronic leadership failures at the base that contributed to a widespread pattern of violence including murder, sexual assaults and harassment.
Two general officers are among those being removed from their jobs, as top Army leaders on Tuesday announced the findings of an independent panel’s investigation into problems at the base.
Fernandes is mentioned just once in the voluminous report - and this mention is a footnote. But a major policy change ordered by McCarthy reflects the struggle the Fernandes’ family has said they faced convincing the Army to search for their missing loved one.
Fernandes’ mother said she had to travel to Texas on her own to search for her son and got no help from the Army until several days had elapsed following his disappearance. Now, the Army will designate a soldier who does not show up for work as “absent unknown” for 48 hours while contacting civilian and military law enforcement to start a search.
“When one of our teammates does not report for duty, we will change their duty status to ‘absent-unknown’ and take immediate action to find them,” McCarthy said in a statement.
Commanders will then determine if the solider is missing as its known in the civilian world leading the soldier to be declared “duty status whereabouts unknown” or by the new Army acronym of DUSTWUN.
“Opening a DUSTWUN casualty case provides the Soldier’s family with a liaison officer while it attempts to locate the missing Soldier,’' the Army said in the statement.
The actions taken by McCarthy come in the aftermath of the bludgeoning death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen who was missing for about two months before her remains were found. The body of Pvt. Mejhor Morta was found in July near a reservoir by the base. In June, officials discovered the remains of another missing soldier, Gregory Morales, about 10 miles from that lake.
The firings and suspensions include Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, who was left in charge of the base earlier this year when Guillen was killed, as well as Maj. Gen. Jeffery Broadwater, commander of the 1st Cavalry Divisions. The administrative actions are expected to trigger investigations that could lead to a wide range of punishments. Those punishments could go from a simple letter of reprimand to a military discharge.
The base commander, Army Lt. Gen. Pat White, will not face any administrative action. He was deployed to Iraq as the commander there for much of the year.
Army leaders had already delayed Efflandt’s planned transfer to Fort Bliss, where he was slated to take over leadership of the 1st Armored Division. Command of a division is a key step in an Army officer’s career.
Efflandt’s move was paused while the team of independent investigators conducted its probe into whether leadership failures contributed to the killings of several people, including Guillen, and who should be held accountable.
According to investigators, Guillen, 20, was bludgeoned to death at Fort Hood by Spc. Aaron Robinson, who killed himself on July 1 as police were trying to take him into custody. Guillen's family has said Robinson sexually harassed her, though the Army has said there is no evidence supporting that claim.