The body of missing Fort Hood soldier Elder Fernandes was found on Tuesday night, more than one week after the 23-year-old sergeant was last seen.
Fort Hood said Fernandes, a native of Brockton, Mass., was found deceased near Lake Polk in Temple, Texas, about 30 miles from the base. He had been reported missing on Aug. 18.
“Our worst nightmare has happened,” Khawam said.
The base said in a statement on Friday that Fernandes was last seen by members of his unit at a residence in Killeen, Texas. on Aug. 17 and did not report to work the following day as scheduled. It added that Fernandes’ only known vehicle was located on base at his unit’s parking lot, and information gathered from other soldiers suggested he had left on his own accord.
Fort Hood said Fernandes’ disappearance sparked a thorough search in Central Texas, with members of his base scouring hospitals and hotels. His family also traveled from Massachusetts to Texas to help look for him.
Ailina Fernandes told The Boston Globe that her son had been hospitalized on Aug. 11 for reasons she did not know, and was reportedly given a ride home by a staff sergeant when he was discharged on Aug. 17. His family members have publicly questioned the base’s narrative that he left on his own volition.
Lt. Col. Chris Brautigam, a 1st Cavalry Division public affairs officer, said last week that Fernandes had previously transferred units after reporting sexual abuse, and that an investigation into the allegation remained open.
According to Khawam, Fernandes was sexually assaulted by his sergeant, then “bullied and hazed for reporting it.”
She said at a press conference that she learned his body had been found on Tuesday night.
Police in Temple said in a statement late Tuesday that a caller initially alerted first responders that there was a man along the railroad tracks. Upon their arrival, officers “determined that the subject had been deceased for some period of time.”
Police said that identification found at the scene indicated the victim may be Fernandes — though they were awaiting forensic confirmation — and expressed condolences to his family. They said there was no indication of foul play.
Khawam said the body was found hanging in a tree, and that a backpack on the scene had Fernandes’ driver’s license inside.
“We are heartbroken for Elder Fernandes’ family and sickened by this tragedy that has happened too many times at Fort Hood,” she said, alluding to a string of recent deaths and disappearances involving soldiers at the base.
Khawam also represents the family of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a Fort Hood soldier who went missing in April and whose remains were identified in July. Her family says she was the target of sexual harassment. Army officials said that one suspect in the case killed himself, and another was arrested and charged with one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
Guillen was the third service member from the base to be found dead this summer. And in her statement, Khawam said Fernandes is the thirteenth Fort Hood soldier to have “vanished or been killed” this year.
In its statement, Fort Hood said there was no connection between Fernandes’ disappearance and any other ongoing cases at the base.
Last month, Khawam and the Guillen family introduced the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill, which would allow active duty service members to file claims of sexual harassment and assault to an outside third party.
Also in July, the army named a five-person civilian panel to conduct a review of the culture at Fort Hood.
Fernandes, who was born in Cape Verde in West Africa, 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.