The body of 23-year-old Sergeant Elder Fernandes was found 30 miles from Fort Hood after he was last seen on Aug. 17 in Killeen, Texas according to a press release from Fort Hood. Fernandes is the third soldier from Fort Hood to go missing this year following the disappearance of Vanessa Guillen. Attorney Natalie Khawam, who represents both the Fernandes and Guillen families, said Army police told informed the family Tuesday night and said the body was found hanging in a tree, CBS reports. Fernandes was found near Temple, about 30 miles from base, with identification found with the body.
“We will not stop until we find out what happened to Elder. We demand a Congressional Investigation of Ft. Hood,” Khawarm tweeted. “We must protect our soldiers! We demand Justice for Elder!”
We will not stop until we find out what happened to Elder. We demand a Congressional Investigation of Ft. Hood. We must protect our soldiers!
We demand Justice for Elder!#justiceforelderfernandes#iamvanessaguillen
— Attorney Natalie Khawam (@WhistleblowerLF) August 26, 2020
His aunt Isabel Fernandes said he was happy in the Army and had just renewed his contract until 2024 until he filed a sexual assault claim against a superior on May 11. She said the family has also learned he was bullied, harassed and hazed when he was moved to a new unit following the assault.
According to Army Criminal Investigations Division special agent Damon Phelps, Fernandes reported that someone had “reached out and touched his buttocks.” Phelps said an investigation was completed and as there were no witnesses the allegation was determined unsubstantiated. Officials declined to give the identity of the accused, who they said took a polygraph test, the Associated Press reports.
Officials said in a previous statement that Fernandes was transferred to a different unit within the brigade following the report and they are unaware of reports of bullying or hazing. His mother Ailina Fernandes and her family traveled to Texas recently out of concern for his well being, the Boston Globe reports.
“He was humiliated, he was embarrassed, he couldn’t even tell his mom, he didn’t want to tell anyone,” Khawam said reports USA Today. “He was afraid. He was ashamed by this.”
A 1st Cavalry Division official confirmed that Fernandes was hospitalized from Aug. 11 to Aug. 17, ABC reports. Army officials wont’ disclose why for privacy reasons but according to his mother, he’d told her he needed to “clear his mind” and would call when he was discharged, but he never did.
According to his aunt they were told by Army officials that a different superior signed her nephew’s hospital release. The superior dropped him off outside of a house belonging to a former roommate but he never it to the door. Khawam tweeted about the importance of passing the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill, which would allow active duty service members to file claims of sexual harassment and assault to a third party.
“People are asking — why didn’t Vanessa report the sexual harassment? Why didn’t she? Fernandes is an example that this not only happens to women, but to men,” Lupe Guillen, the youngest sister of Vanessa Guillen, said reports USA Today. “He’s an example that, if you speak up, if you report it, look what happens to you.”
Fernandes was born in Cape Verde in West Africa and joined the Army in Sept. 2016. He was a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade. An autopsy is being conducted today.
“They don’t know what happened — whether it was suicide or whether murder. But I’m gonna tell you, what they did to him, the blood on their hands, it’s a form of murder,” Khawam said, reports USA Today.