Fort Hood soldiers told members of a congressional delegation that suicides are treated as an inconvenience, they aren't provided resources to live safely and in healthy conditions and victims who report sexual assaults are harassed by superior officers.
A congressional delegation, including three representatives from Massachusetts, traveled to the U.S. Army's Fort Hood base in Texas last weekend to investigate an “alarming number” of deaths at the base this year, including Sgt. Elder Fernandes. The Brockton native was missing from the base for more than a week before he was found hanged from a tree about 28 miles away in Temple, Texas, on Aug. 25.
Authorities say Fernandes hanged himself, but his family disputes that there was no foul play involved in his death.
U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes Brockton, first visited the base while Fernandes was still missing in hopes he could help the soldier's family get answers regarding his disappearance.
“The Army is a learning organization. When they have a problem, you know it. They respond robustly. There's an urgency. There's a well-defined issue and they get right at it,” Lynch said Wednesday during a virtual news conference. “I did not see any of that in my first visit to Fort Hood. There was a lack of seriousness, a lack of attention, a lack of focus. Some of the officers, at the very top, were casual about what was going on there.”
Lynch said when he arrived at Fort Hood, he “anticipated they had a plan and they had none.”
Fernandes reported in May that he was sexually assaulted by a male superior. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command said it found Fernandes' report “unsubstantiated” following a “thorough legal review.”
But during their recent trip to Fort Hood, the members of Congress said they learned it was largely a polygraph test that was used to determine Fernandes' sexual assault report was “unsubstantiated.” Lynch said he “doubted the veracity and the process that they had used.”
“They used a polygraph and it turns out, at least according to CID officials there, that they use this on hundreds of cases,” Lynch said. “They gave the accused a polygraph, he passed it and then they dismissed the case, based largely on that, although they did say that they thought there were other witnesses as well, but we didn't get to speak to those witnesses and they never went back to Elder Fernandes, Sgt. Fernandes, to ask him further details about this. They just exonerated the accused.”
U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat who was also part of the delegation that visited Fort Hood, said she found the use of polygraphs to be a “very strange process” since they aren't admissible as evidence in any military tribunal or state or federal court.
“We have no idea what the training is for these polygraphs,” she said. “What we do know is that the complaint that Elder Fernandes filed was against a superior and we do know that there is a culture at Fort Hood, and I believe throughout the military, there's great unease, trepidation and outright fear about reporting superiors and what that will mean.”
Lt. Col. Christopher Brautigam, a spokesperson for Fort Hood, said in a statement to The Enterprise on Wednesday night that there was a thorough investigation into Fernandes' report that he was sexually assaulted.
“This investigation gathered all available evidence in connection with the allegation, which included the collection of multiple eyewitness statements,” he said. “Subsequently, a military justice advisor independently reviewed the law enforcement investigation report and all supporting evidence and determined there was no probable cause to believe an offense was committed.”
Brautigam said the 1st Cavalry Division was “completely committed” to finding Fernandes, took “unprecedented action in our efforts to find him” and was “devastated” when he was found dead.
'A culture that promotes silence'
The members of Congress who spoke at Wednesday's news conference, including U.S. Rep Ayanna Pressley, also a Massachusetts Democrat, said they also found broader issues of concern at Fort Hood.
They say 30 soldiers have died at Fort Hood this year alone. And Lynch said his staff found there have been about 150 cases of suicides, homicides and disappearances of soldiers at the Killeen, Texas, base in the last five years, which he called “deeply troubling.”
“We cannot ignore the depressed and demoralized experience that service men and women and their families are having there,” Pressley said. “One of the military spouses said everyone knows that Fort Hood is the place where Army careers go to die. This is about endless wars and multiple deployments — the impact on the family unit, on mental health, this is about a base that has a footprint so large that it's ostensibly a city within a city, and so it brings with it city challenges, including housing stock that is deplorable. I was ashamed — ashamed.”
A young mother told the congressional delegation that black mold was so bad within her family's home on the base that the mold got into her baby's mattress and caused respiratory ailments, Clark said.
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and a veteran, told his fellow members of Congress that one of the barracks he toured at Fort Hood was one of the “worst he has ever seen,” Clark said.
And several female soldiers told the members of Congress that they wouldn't feel comfortable reporting a sexual assault at the base, Clark said.
“Most significantly, I think what we saw is that we need to address the toxic culture of fear, intimidation, harassment and indifference,” Clark said. “… We also know that a majority of victims are harassed by someone in their own chain of command. There's a culture that promotes silence, not safety, a culture that rewards retaliation instead of trust.”
Brautigam, the Fort Hood spokesperson, said the 1st Cavalry Division is “leading the way” for the Army and Fort Hood through Operation Pegasus Strength, “which aims to eradicate corrosives in the 1st Cavalry Division.”
“The division and the Army takes the health and well-being of all of our Soldiers seriously and the loss of any one of our teammates affects us all,” he wrote in his statement. “We urge all Soldiers to reach out to their leadership, to the on post resources, and to Family and Friends if they need help as each trooper is valuable and has a life worth living.”
New leader and the 'beginnings of a plan'
On his second trip to Fort Hood last weekend, Lynch said he saw some immediate differences from his first trip.
Shortly after Fernandes' death and partly in response to the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a soldier who went missing from Fort Hood in April and whose body was found dismembered at the hands of a fellow soldier, who later killed himself, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt was removed as the commander at Fort Hood.
Maj. Gen. John Richardson replaced Efflandt as deputy corps commander.
“I see the beginnings of a plan, the beginnings of sort of the Army process that I have recognized in that past where they take an issue seriously and begin to respond, begin to put a plan together,” Lynch said.
Clark said she was also “heartened” by Richardson's words and feels he is committed to change.
“We need to do everything we can to start changing this culture and support our service members,” she said.
The members of Congress are urging for the swift passage of the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, which would require the U.S. military to direct independent investigations to determine whether to prosecute service members for sexual assault or sexual harassment.
“It's not unique to Fort Hood,” Pressley said. “It is systemic and that's why we need to pass the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act.”
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