Congress probes 'alarming pattern' of Fort Hood tragedies

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Mellisa Mendoza places white roses at a mural for Fort Hood Spc. Vanessa Guillen at a convenience store in the Dove Springs neighborhood on July 6, 2020. - JAY JANNER/Austin American-Statesman/TNS

AUSTIN, Texas — Two U.S. House subcommittees have launched a joint investigation into “an alarming pattern of recent tragedies” at Fort Hood, giving Army leadership until Oct. 2 to deliver documents related to the death or disappearance of seven soldiers, including Spc. Vanessa Guillen of Houston.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the secretary of the Army, the subcommittee leaders said a spate of crimes at the Texas military post may be a symptom of leadership, discipline and morale deficiencies across the chain of command.

“Where appropriate, we intend to seek justice on behalf of those in uniform, and their families, who may have been failed by a military system and culture that was ultimately responsible for their care and protection,” the letter said.

The letter from U.S. Reps. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said families of missing Fort Hood soldiers have expressed “anguish and frustration” over the Army’s response, including limited information about investigations.

The subcommittees will determine whether Fort Hood leaders have allowed or enabled a culture that undermines Army tradition, the letter said.

Lynch leads the national security subcommittee on the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Speier leads the military personnel panel of the Armed Services Committee.

Beyond Guillen, who was missing for more than three months before her dismembered remains were found in Bell County in late June, the letter focused on Pvt. Mejhor Morta and Sgt. Elder Fernandes, who went missing before they were discovered dead, and Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales, whose body was discovered in June, almost a year after he went missing.

“While foul play is suspected in the deaths of Guillen and Wedel-Morales, investigations into the circumstances of the deaths of Fernandes and Morta remain ongoing,” the letter said.

In addition, the recent deaths of Pfc. Brandon Scott Rosecrans, Spc. Freddy Delacruz Jr. and Spc. Shelby Tyler Jones are being investigated as homicides, the letter to Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said.

The letter requested numerous documents, many focused on sexual misconduct amid allegations surrounding Guillen — who did not file a formal sexual harassment complaint for fear of retribution, her family said — and Fernandes, who was bullied and hazed after reporting harassment, a family lawyer has said.

McCarthy was directed to turn over investigative files and all documents detailing communication between Fort Hood commanders and military police and state and local law enforcement in the deaths and disappearances.

The congressional leaders also wanted detailed timelines on the base response to any sexual assault or harassment allegations related to the dead soldiers.

The letter also sought extensive documentation on base policies and procedures, including details on how soldiers are determined to be absent without leave and how search-and-rescue operations are conducted for missing service members.

McCarthy recently formed a five-member civilian panel to conduct an in-depth review of Fort Hood, which has the highest rate of violent crime in the Army with an annual average of 129 reported felonies from 2014-19 officials have said.

Tuesday’s letter requested copies of that report when the independent investigation is finished.

A spokeswoman for McCarthy said his office will respond directly to Lynch and Speier.

“We are deeply saddened by these tragedies and have several ongoing investigations and reviews to better understand the climate, the leadership, resources, and determine if systemic problems exist,” Lt. Col. Driece M. Harris said in an email.

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, whose district includes part of Fort Hood, was asked Tuesday if he favored or opposed the joint subcommittee investigation.

“I fully support the ongoing Fort Hood investigations being led by Army Futures commanding Gen. John Murray and the independent review ordered by the secretary of the Army,” Williams said in a statement.

“It’s critically important that we allow the investigators to complete their work, and that Congress has full access to the final report so we can implement meaningful reforms to keep service members and their families safe,” Williams said, adding that he plans to work with Army leaders to ensure “unimpeded and thorough” investigations.

Last week, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, joined a bipartisan call for a Senate committee hearing into Fort Hood’s command climate and culture. And in July, a U.S. House hearing examined sexual harassment at Fort Hood and throughout the military.

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