The body of a missing Fort Hood soldier was discovered on Tuesday, the third dead soldier recovered near the Army base in the last three months.
Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, was a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist in the 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. He had been missing since Aug. 17 after being discharged from a week-long hospitalization at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. The Army has not publicly disclosed the reason for the hospitalization, but according to KCEN-TV, Fort Hood officials told his family that he was suicidal.
Police in Temple, Texas, which is 30 miles from Fort Hood, found a body hanging from a tree on Tuesday. Fernandes’ identification was found at the scene. Visual confirmation of his identity was not possible because “the subject had been deceased for some period of time,” according to a statement from Temple police.
FORT HOOD, Texas – It is with profound sadness the 1st Cavalry Division confirms Sgt. Elder Fernandes was found deceased Aug. 25 in Temple, Texas. pic.twitter.com/PG3nm8R2iL
— 1st Cavalry Division (@1stCavalryDiv) August 26, 2020
In May, Fernandes reported being sexually assaulted by a male superior officer. He alleged that the other soldier groped him in a supply room in April, but an investigation deemed the charge unsubstantiated.
“The subject of the investigation took and passed a polygraph examination, and we found no witnesses that could corroborate Sgt. Fernandes’ allegations,” said Special Agent Damon Phelps from Army Criminal Investigation Command at a press conference Wednesday.
Fort Hood’s public affairs officer, Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam, told the press that Fernandes was transferred to a different unit to “ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals.”
According to Lt. Col. Justin Redfern, commander of the 553rd CSSB, Fernandes had been an “exemplary” soldier, but his behavior began to change in mid-March, preceded the reported sexual assault. Following his move off base in April, “his behavior continued to spiral downwardly, unfortunately,” said Redfern. On Aug. 10, he did not report to work, and he was hospitalized the following day.
Born in Cape Verde but raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, Fernandes joined the Army in 2016 and had recently reenlisted.
In June, the remains of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales were found in a field in Killeen, Texas. Wedel-Morales had been missing since August 2019 and was deemed AWOL. The investigation into his death is ongoing, and officials suspect foul play.
In July, the remains of Spc. Vanessa Guillén were found buried near the Leon River. She had been missing since April. The suspect in her murder, Spc. Aaron Robinson, shot and killed himself in a confrontation with US Marshals.
The lawyer for the families of Rodrigues and Guillén, Natalie Khawam, has called for an independent investigation of the command at Fort Hood. She has also proposed the #IAmVanessaGuillén bill for congressional consideration, which would allow service members to report sexual assault and harassment to an independent third party rather than to their command.