The death of Fort Hood Sgt. Elder Fernandes, who had complained of sexual abuse on base and was reported missing, has been ruled a suicide, according an autopsy report obtained by NBC News.
Fernandes, 23, was receiving treatment when he disappeared Aug. 17 and had just been discharged from a military hospital. Family attorney Natalie Khawam said his body was found hanging from a tree.
His body was discovered on Aug. 25, after a massive search by volunteers and service members.
Three days later, congressional lawmakers from his native Massachusetts sent a letter to the Defense Department, demanding an investigation into his death.
“We are heartbroken by Sgt. Fernandes’ death,” read the letter signed by senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and representatives Stephen Lynch, Jim McGovern, Joe Kennedy III, Lori Trahan, Ayanna Pressley, Bill Keating, Richard Neal, Katherine Clark and Seth Moulton.
“As Members of Congress representing Sgt. Fernandes and his family, we demand a full and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his death, including allegations of abusive sexual contact, bullying, and retaliation.”
His death follows several deaths and killings of soldiers at the troubled base, where at least five separate investigations are underway into the death of soldier Vanessa Guillen, another Fort Hood soldier who disappeared and was later found dead.
The installation's commander was removed from his post last week.
“I am saddened that another soldier who served the country has been destroyed by sexual assault and sexual harassment and this toxic culture in the military that exists,” attorney Khawam said when his body was found.
She also represents the family of Guillen.
The 20-year-old soldier was killed on base by a fellow soldier, then dismembered and buried off base, authorities said. Her remains were found two months after she disappeared in April. The suspect in her killing shot himself to death as authorities approached him for questioning.
Fernandes was reported missing by Killeen and U.S. Army police on Aug. 19 after he was last seen two days before, when his superior dropped him off at his house after his release from a hospital, authorities said.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division has said Fernandes was hospitalized between Aug. 11 and Aug. 17, and was experiencing a “spiral down effect” after reporting he had been sexually abused in mid-March.
To protect him from reprisals, base officials moved him into independent housing in April, authorities said. The soldier alleged he had been “bullied” and “hazed” for reporting abusive sexual contact, his relatives and their lawyer said.
The day after his body was found, CID officials said his complaints were found to be "unsubstantiated."
“We must do more than grieve the loss of Sgt. Fernandes — we must seek justice and answers for his family. That starts with a full and complete investigation,” said the letter from congressional members
Fernandes was a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist with the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade at the central Texas Army installation.
Military officials say his case is not related to other disappearances and deaths involving Fort Hood.
The remains of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, a soldier missing since August 2019, were discover in a field outside the base in July. Earlier this month, two people were arrested in connection with the killing of Pfc. Brandon Rosecrans, whose bullet-ridden body was found in a ditch in nearby Harker Heights in May.
U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy visited Fort Hood in August, and acknowledged the post has a disturbing rate of violent crime, including murder.
“The numbers are high here,” McCarthy said. “They are the highest, in most cases, for sexual assault and harassment and murders for our entire formation — the U.S. Army.”