Tanzina Vega: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. The Fort Hood military base in Texas is making headlines again for yet another missing person in a string of incidents. 23-year-old Sergeant Elder Fernandes has been missing since August 17th. A spokesperson from Fort Hood said Fernandes had recently been transferred after being the victim of abusive sexual contact. Fernandes's disappearance comes on the heels of the death of army specialist Vanessa Guillén, whose remains were identified in July after having been reported missing from Fort Hood for more than two months.
Before she disappeared, Guillén had told friends that she had been sexually harassed on the base. Guillén's death and now the disappearance of Fernandes has sparked a larger conversation on the mishandling of sexual assault on military bases and has led to multiple investigations into conduct at Fort Hood. Joining me now is Nicole Acevedo, digital reporter for NBC News who's been following this story. Nicole, thanks again for being with us.
Nicole Acevedo: Thank you.
Tanzina: What can you tell us about the sexual abuse that Sergeant Fernandes said he experienced at Fort Hood?
Nicole: What officials are the army have told us is that he had recently be transferred to a different unit because he was the victim and an open investigation looking into what they were calling abusive sexual contact. The fact that it is an open investigation it's a little bit different from what we saw with Vanessa Guillén's case, where we saw the family say, "Listen, our daughter, our sister expressed that she was harassed at this base, but then officials said that nothing was open.
No investigation was open within their unit and no officials were acknowledging that." With Fernandes's case, that's a little bit different the fact that the army is involved and that he was transferred from a different unit. The reason for that was to prevent any backlash or conflicts that might affect Elder in the middle of that investigation that's still ongoing.
Tanzina: Nicole, in a statement, the army said that they do not suspect foul play and believe that Sergeant Fernandes left on his own accord. What proof do they have of that?
Nicole: Right now, things are looking complicated for the army statement. The Fernandes family is being represented by attorney Natalie Khawam. If the name rings a bell is because it's the same attorney that represented the Guillén family in their case. She tweeted overnight that her body was found in Temple, Texas, and they suspect that it might be Elder Fernandes's body and that the body has been there for quite some time. The army has not said anything publicly yet about this finding, but then, the fact that last week they said that they did not suspect that fall play may seem a little bit conflicting.
Tanzina: Nicole, you've spoken to Sergeant Fernandes's mother, what did she have to say about what happened and about the Army's response to her son's disappearance?
Nicole: His mother, Ailina Fernandes, we spoke briefly on Friday. She had travel from Massachusetts where she lives to Texas to get some answers. We spoke Friday. Elder had been missing since Monday, and I was telling her, how was she feeling and what she told me right then was as of right now, I'm not getting any answers. We spoke briefly on Tuesday evening and she told me it's just been frustrating for now.
A lot of the sentiment that are heard from Elder's mother a little bit echo the sentiment that the Guillén family manifested when her disappearance and on her search was still ongoing. I think a lot of people are really seeing the parallels between both cases, especially happening as such a short amount of time from each other and the fact that they're not the only soldiers that have been found dead at the base this year.
Tanzina: Let's talk about that because-- What type of pattern, Nicole, are you seeing emerge, if any, given Guillén, Fernandes, and you mentioned other soldiers who have either been harassed or found dead. Are we talking about soldiers who have experienced sexual assault? Are we talking about soldiers who happen to be of color? Are there any patterns emerging right now that we can tell so far?
Nicole: At least definitely, a lot of them are people of color. Actually, Elder Fernandes's disappearance came exactly one year after soldier Gregory Wedel Morales was reported missing last year. His remains were found in June, as Vanessa Guillén's search was still ongoing. About not even a month after Wedel Morales's remains were found, another soldier, Mejhor Morta was found unresponsive in July, around the same area where Wedel Morales's remains were found. We have another soldier, Francisco Gilberto Hernandezvargas, whose body was also found on August 2nd near a lake that's around the base area.
I mean, just all these reports have really triggered Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to say, "Listen, we have to order an independent review to see if the command climate at Fort Hood or any leadership failure had contributed somehow to all these disappearances and deaths at the base. As part of that investigation, they're supposed to examine claims and historical data that has anything to do with discrimination, harassment, or even assault.
Tanzina: Nicole, are local law enforcement officials involved in any of these investigations or because this is happening off of the base in the area of Fort Hood? I'm not sure if that means that this is solely the jurisdiction of Fort Hood officials and the Army or if they are now involving local law enforcement officials?
Nicole: Local law enforcement officials have been involved in these cases, especially since a lot of them seem to happen in the Killeen area, which is the city right outside the Fort Hood base. We also have Temple police right now, given the body that was found overnight and are trying to confirm whether it is Elder Fernandes's body or not. Yes, but the catch is that normally, the Army is the one that takes charge of these investigations, even though other agencies may be involved.
I remember with Vanessa Guillén's case, even the FBI was involved. The family was looking to have the FBI take over in terms of being in charge of the investigation, even though they were already involved. The long story short, yes. Other agencies are involved, but normally, the Army takes charge.
Tanzina: Nicole Acevedo is a digital reporter for NBC News. Nicole, thank you so much for your reporting on this.
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