Gillibrand, Reed, Speier, Smith Call on GAO to Conduct Investigation Into Army’s Missing Person Procedures Following Disappearance and Deaths of Three Fort Hood Soldiers
In three separate cases Ft. Hood Soldiers Specialist Vanessa Guillén, PV2 Gregory Morales, and Sergeant Elder Fernandes Went Missing and Were Later Found Dead
WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, and her colleagues Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee on Military Personnel, and Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) comptroller general requesting a comprehensive review of the military’s missing person investigation procedures in order to prevent future tragedies like that of the disappearances and deaths of three Fort Hood soldiers, Specialist (SPC) Vanessa Guillén, PV2 Gregory Morales, and Sergeant Elder Fernandes. Guillén had been missing for two months before Army investigators found her remains in the vicinity of Fort Hood.
“The disappearances and deaths of Vanessa Guillén, Gregory Morales, and Elder Fernandes reveal the outrageous shortcomings in how the military conducts missing person investigations,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The military’s procedures failed the Guillén, Morales, and Fernandes families, and now the Government Accountability Office must take action to prevent future tragedies and protect the members of our military.”
“I am alarmed by the increasing frequency of missing persons cases linked to Fort Hood, including Sergeant Elder Fernandes. It is imperative that the Fernandes family get answers about what happened to their son and GAO needs to undertake an independent assessment of the military’s handling of missing persons cases to determine whether additional resources, policies, or procedures are required,” said Senator Reed. “In the tragic case of Sp. Vanessa Guillen, the Army Criminal Investigation Command worked closely with multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Belton Police Department, Bell County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Texas Rangers, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. One of the things GAO needs to focus on is whether more effective coordination and communication between the military, federal, and local law enforcement is warranted.”
“The horrific events at Fort Hood and glaring deficiencies in the military’s response to missing servicemembers demand an independent review of the military’s handling of missing-persons investigations. Too often commanders assume that missing servicemembers have deserted—an error that results in unnecessary delays and little to no effort to ensure the servicemember is safe. The cost of that failure, over and over, has been a soldier’s life. And the treatment of family members and loved ones that I have spoken with is just as disturbing. That isn’t just callous and disrespectful, it’s inhumane,” Chair Speier said. “The Army is rightfully reviewing these policies, but clearly we need an independent GAO review of missing-servicemember procedures across all branches of our military to give DoD leadership and Congress recommendations so that we can finally revamp the military’s failed approach. Our armed forces must lead the charge, not lag behind. They have a duty to provide servicemembers and their families and friends with the highest quality, aggressive, and effective response that they deserve.”
“The continued and increasing number of servicemembers missing at Ft Hood is deeply troubling. While there is laser focus on Ft Hood, there are many other large installations throughout the world that may have similar challenges. I remain concerned about how the military handles and classifies missing persons. An outside look by GAO will baseline the issue and present viable solutions that Congress can act on. We are asking GAO to review what is currently in the House-passed FY21 NDAA to ensure it clarifies the applicable roles and responsibilities as well as clearly delineates the coordination process between base and local officials. Waiting until the bill is signed into law is not the answer and in some cases will be too late,” said Chairman Smith.
Gillibrand and Speier have previously raised questions about the Army’s response to Guillén’s disappearance in a letter to Acting Department of Defense Inspector General Sean O’Donnell, calling for an investigation into the disappearance of Specialist (SPC) Vanessa Guillén. The letter noted that the Army marshalled significant investigative resources into Guillén’s disappearance only after her family launched a social media campaign calling attention to it.
Guillén had shared with her family that she was sexually harassed by a fellow soldier. It appears that SPC Guillén did not formally report her harassment because she did not trust her leadership to take her report seriously, which fits a broader pattern of the military downplaying the severity of sexual harassment and assault in the ranks.
Fernandes reported a sexual assault by a superior officer in the weeks before he was found hanging from a tree about 25 miles from Fort Hood late on Tuesday night. His family was not aware of his disappearance, and had contacted Fort Hood base seeking answers.
Fernandes was the 10th soldier to vanish from Fort Hood in a year, and the second, after Guillén, to go missing amid allegations of sexual abuse.
PV2 Gregory Morales went missing from Fort Hood in August 2019, but a reward was not offered for information regarding his whereabouts until roughly 10 months later in June 2020. His remains were found shortly after.
The full text of the letter follows:
August 28, 2020
The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro
U.S. Government Accountability Office
441 G Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20548
Dear Mr. Dodaro:
The murder of Specialist (SPC) Vanessa Guillén, who had been missing for two months before Army investigators found her remains in the vicinity of Fort Hood, where she had been stationed, raises issues in how the Army conducts missing person investigations.
We are concerned that any shortcomings may not be limited to a single case or installation, and could be indicative of problems across the Armed Forces. For example, PV2 Gregory Morales went missing from Fort Hood on August 19, 2019, yet a reward was not offered for information about his whereabouts until June 2020, and his remains were found shortly thereafter. Two days ago, the likely remains of SGT Elder Fernandes were found 30 miles from Fort Hood, days after he went missing after being discharged from inpatient medical care, having previously reported abusive sexual contact. We believe that there must be a comprehensive review of the military’s missing person investigation procedures to enhance search efforts in the future.
As the starting point for accountability and change, in order to correct past missteps and modernize the process, we write today to request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a comprehensive review on the manner in which the Armed Forces handle cases of missing persons, desertion, and of members absent without leave or on an unauthorized absence. We would like for this review to include the following elements:
(1) The procedures and guidelines established by each Armed Force for the investigation of cases of desertion and of members absent without leave or on an unauthorized absence.
(2) The procedures and guidelines of the Armed Forces for distinguishing cases of members of the Armed Forces absent without leave from cases of members who are involuntarily absent.
(3) The current procedures and guidelines for cooperation and coordination in investigations of such a case between military criminal investigative organizations or other military investigative agencies and—
(a) state and local law enforcement agencies; and
(b) Federal law enforcement agencies.
(4) The current procedures and guidelines of the Armed Forces for use of media and social media in conjunction with such an investigation.
(5) Military resources available for such investigations, and any apparent shortfalls in such resources.
(6) The manner in which the procedures and guidelines for such investigations vary between Armed Forces.
(7) The manner in which the procedures and guidelines of the Armed Forces in such investigations vary from procedures and guidelines used by select state, local and Federal law enforcement agencies in such investigations.
(8) Any recognized best practices for responding to and investigating such cases.
(9) Any other matters the Comptroller General considers appropriate.
We request that this study be completed before December 16, 2021. We also request periodic briefings on your findings prior to the release of the final report. If you have any questions, please contact Mitchel Hochberg at Mitchel_Hochberg@Gillibrand.senate.gov and Brian Collins at Brian.Collins@mail.house.gov.
We appreciate GAO’s attention to this critically important issue for military personnel.