Steve August 22, 2020
missing-fort-hood-soldier-a-victim-of-‘abusive-sexual-contact,’-army-says

Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, a Fort Hood soldier who has been missing for five days, was recently transferred to a different unit because he was the victim of “abusive sexual contact,” U.S. Army officials said Saturday.

“We can confirm there is an open investigation of abusive sexual contact involving Sgt. Fernandes,” Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam, a 1st Cavalry Division spokesman, said in a statement to NBC News.

“The unit sexual assault response coordinator has been working closely with Sgt. Fernandes, ensuring he was aware of all his reporting, care, and victim advocacy options,” he said.

Brautigam said Fernandes was transferred “to ensure he received the proper care and ensure there were no opportunities for reprisals.”

Army officials asked for the public’s help Friday in their search for Fernandes.

Police in Killeen, Texas, who are involved in the search, said he was reported missing Wednesday. Family members told police he was last seen or heard from Monday afternoon when his staff sergeant dropped him off at his home in Killeen.

The soldier, whose family is originally from Cape Verde in West Africa, had been in the hospital for four or five days prior to his disappearance, said his mother, Ailiana Fernandes. She said it was unclear why he was in the hospital.

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Ailiana, who lives in Massachusetts, traveled to Fort Hood to seek answers on her son’s whereabouts.

Fernandes is a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist with the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade at the Central Texas Army installation. He was last seen wearing black Army physical training shorts, a T-shirt and red athletic shoes, according to Killeen police.

Fort Hood has been in the spotlight because of other missing soldiers, particularly Spc. Vanessa Guillén, 20, whose remains were found after extensive national attention.

Army officials found Guillén’s remains July 1 near the Leon River in Bell County, about 20 miles east of Fort Hood, more than two months after she was reported missing.

Federal and state authorities said Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, killed and dismembered Guillén and had the remains disposed of in nearby woods. Robinson, a fellow Fort Hood soldier, died by suicide July 1 after Guillén’s remains were found, officials said.

Cecily Aguilar, 22, of Killeen, has been accused of helping Robinson dispose of Guillén’s body. She has been charged with three federal conspiracy counts related to Guillén’s death. Aguilar, who pleaded not guilty, is due in court Sept. 28.

The military also opened a separate inquiry looking into allegations that Guillén was sexually harassed by a supervisor. Natalie Khawam, an attorney for the Guillén family, said Guillén had reported her harassment to her family and colleagues at Fort Hood.

After the sexual harassment reports surfaced, many service members have used the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on social media. Sexual assault in the U.S. military has increased over the past two years, according to a report from the Defense Department.

Fernandes’ disappearance comes one year after another Fort Hood soldier, Pfc. Gregory Wedel-Morales, 24, was reported missing Aug. 20, 2019.

Wedel-Morales’ remains were found June 21 in a field in Killeen, just over 10 miles from Stillhouse Hollow Lake, a reservoir managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Fort Worth District. Killeen police are investigating his death.

Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, was found unresponsive July 17 in the vicinity of Stillhouse Hollow Lake, according to Fort Hood officials.

Earlier this month, Fort Hood officials recovered the body of Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandez-Vargas, 24, following an Aug. 2 boating incident on the lake.

Army leaders have delayed the planned transfer of Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, the Fort Hood commander, to a more prestigious assignment at Fort Bliss, Texas, while a team of independent investigators determines if leadership failures contributed to the deaths and disappearances. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy has commented that Fort Hood has one of the highest rates of murder, sexual assault and harassment in the Army.

Image: Nicole AcevedoNicole Acevedo

Nicole Acevedo is a reporter for NBC News Digital. She reports, writes and produces stories for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com.

Mosheh Gains

Mosheh Gains is a Pentagon producer for NBC News.

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