Washington, D.C. – This morning, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel; Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel; and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro requesting that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a comprehensive review of the military’s policies and procedures for responding to missing servicemembers. The letter’s request aligns with a bipartisan amendment, offered by Chair Speier and adopted by the House of Representatives, to the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to require GAO to conduct such a review.
Recent events at Fort Hood underscore concerns about the practices employed by the military services when responding to reports of missing servicemembers. Most prominently, SPC Vanessa Guillén missed formation on April 22, 2020, amid suspicious circumstances—her personal belongings were left at her workstation. However, criminal investigators were not contacted until the next day and she was listed in AWOL status despite ample reason to suspect foul play. PV2 Gregory Morales, another Fort Hood solider, was missing for nearly a year before the Army offered a reward for information leading to his whereabouts. His remains were finally discovered on June 19, 2020. Earlier this week, what appears to be the remains of SGT Elder Fernandes were found 30 miles from Fort Hood. He missed formation the morning after being discharged from inpatient medical care, having earlier reported abusive sexual contact. The Secretary of the Army confirmed that Fort Hood has a much higher rate of sexual assault, murder, and violent crime compared to other military installations. He has also indicated that the Army is reconsidering its policies regarding missing servicemembers.
“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,” Chair Speier said. “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.”
“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,” Chair Speier added.
“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,” Chairman Smith said. 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.”
“The disappearances and deaths of Vanessa Guillén, Gregory Morales, and Elder Fernandes reveal the outrageous shortcomings in how the military conducts missing person investigations,” Senator Gillibrand said. “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 SGT 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,” Senator Reed said. “In the tragic case of SPC Vanessa Guillén, 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 GAO review requested by Rep. Speier, Chairman Smith, Sen. Gillibrand, and Sen. Reed would examine procedures established by each of the military services for investigation of missing servicemembers, including communication through mass and social media; how cases of AWOL servicemembers are distinguished from those where foul play is suspected; procedures and guidelines for cooperation between the military and state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies; the adequacy of military resources available for missing-servicemember investigations; and how military investigations compare to procedures used by other law enforcement agencies and accepted best practices.
A copy of the letter can be found here.