A 20-year-old Army private stationed at Fort Hood was found dead this week, and investigators are examining claims from her family that the young woman had experienced harassment from superiors at the Texas military base.
The death of Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz, a combat engineer with the 1st Cavalry Division, comes just three years after Vanessa Guillén, a 20-year-old soldier at Fort Hood, was sexually assaulted and murdered in April 2020. That case caused a national outcry, exposed systemic problems of sexual assault at the base and throughout the service, and resulted in federal laws overhauling military criminal justice.
Fort Hood officials said in a press release Thursday that "no foul play is evident" in the death of Basaldua, who had been on base for 15 months, but an investigation is ongoing. Her family has publicly indicated the young soldier was struggling and may have faced a toxic work environment at Fort Hood.
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Alejandra Ruiz Zarco, Basaldua's mother who lives in Mexico, told Telemundo News on Wednesday that her daughter said an Army superior "was harassing her" and that she allegedly received sexual advances on the base, saying that "'everyone wants me to sleep with them,'" according to a translation of what the woman recalled to the Hispanic media outlet.
The family has enlisted the help of the Pink Berets, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports women in uniform. Lucy Del Gaudio, the chief operations officer for the organization, told Military.com in an email the family said Basaldua was being "harassed by superiors," which is why they reached out for advice and guidance.
"Our family wants to ensure that women serving in the United States military can be safe and protected," Basaldua's family said in a statement through the Pink Berets. "The United States cannot be protected by soldiers that are victims of heinous crimes. The family is asking for support and a formal investigation into Ana's death."
Fort Hood said in a press release that the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, known as CID, is gathering evidence and looking into the claims of harassment.
"Army CID will continue to conduct a thorough investigation and gather all evidence and facts to ensure they discover exactly what transpired," Fort Hood said in a press release. "Information related to any possible harassment will be addressed and investigated fully."
Col. Christopher Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, said in a press release that the Army is staying in touch with the family throughout the investigation.
"Our hearts and thoughts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of Ana," Dempsey said. "We have remained in constant contact with both parents ... and will continue to keep them updated."
The proximity of the Basaldua and Guillén deaths -- just three years removed from each other -- sparked immediate concern among legal experts and advocates about what has been done to address the culture of sexual harassment, assault and violence at Fort Hood, and whether wide-ranging reforms in the military have gone far enough in addressing systemic issues.
Prior to Guillén's death and disappearance, she told her family she was being sexually harassed. Authorities alleged Guillén was murdered by Aaron David Robinson, a fellow soldier who died by suicide when law enforcement made contact with him. The only person to face charges in the murder was Cecily Aguilar, whom authorities say was Robinson's girlfriend. She pleaded guilty this past November to charges connected to helping dismember and hide Guillén's body.
In the wake of Guillén' death, the Army announced in July 2020 that the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee would investigate the climate and culture at the base. The 136-page report issued a few months later pointed to 70 areas that needed to be improved upon, ranging from policies regarding missing soldiers on base to necessary improvements that need to be made to Fort Hood's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program, known as SHARP.
Last year, on Jan. 1, the "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act" went into effect under the National Defense Authorization Act. Provisions included leaving the choice to prosecute sexual assault and harassment outside of the service member's chain of command, expanded protections against retaliation, and sentencing guidelines, among other reforms.
Mayra Guillén, Vanessa's sister, said Wednesday on Twitter that she was aware of Basaldua's death and planned to be in touch with the family.
"I'm aware of the death of Ana Basaldua in Ft Hood, TX," she wrote. "I will be speaking to the family soon, I find it very sensitive to speak on something I'm not fully aware [of] yet and this is also very triggering for me. ... I need to gather my thoughts and then I'll be able to share them."
The death at Fort Hood on Monday is again shining the national spotlight on a base that was just at the center of one of the biggest Army scandals in recent memory. Nerves are still raw after the Guillén murder, which sparked a Netflix documentary last year.
Sean Timmons, a Texas-based managing partner for the Tully Rinckey law firm and a former judge advocate general at Fort Hood, told Military.com in an interview Friday that he has firsthand experience in seeing base leadership dodge responsibility for incompetence.
In part, that's due to the vast size of Fort Hood and the physical distance it has from Pentagon leadership, Timmons told Military.com.
"The culture at Fort Hood has been, for the last 25 years, a culture where the command feels immune from culpability, immune from oversight, and immune from liability because they operate thousands of miles away from the Pentagon in a part of Texas where the local culture is very pro-military," he said. "So, nobody second-guesses what they do, and they feel above the law. You see that filter through the maltreatment of soldiers."
Also, Timmons said the operational tempo at the base -- home to the III Armored Corps and the 1st Cavalry Division -- paired with a toxic environment among the enlisted soldiers has led to disastrous results.
"Leadership has exhausted the operational tempo far beyond the capacity they can handle, and that results in sleep deprivation and fatigue, which then results in poor judgment; poor decision-making; and very, very foolish results from a toxic environment for individual junior soldiers," he said. "And a lot of junior soldiers are considered like tires; they're interchangeable. They come, they get put on, they wear them out to blow up and replace them."
Fort Hood's deep dysfunction leading up to Guillén's murder was detailed by the review committee's report. But widespread sexual assault and sexual harassment have been long-standing issues for the Defense Department as a whole. For years, it has tried to reduce incidents and increase reporting with little to no success.
A 2021 report from the Pentagon found that 29% of women and 7% of men experienced sexual harassment in the ranks, saying "29 percent is an increase in prevalence and appears to be driven by experiences of enlisted women and those under the age of 25." Just last week, the Pentagon released findings on reported assaults at the military service academies, which showed an overall 18% jump in assaults reported by students compared with the previous year.
Basaldua's family now has legal counsel, with the help of Del Gaudio's organization Pink Berets.
Del Gaudio told Military.com in an interview that she believes assault and harassment within the ranks are particularly rampant at Fort Hood, and that accountability is not nearly in scale to the size of the base.
"For me, personally, as an advocate, it's a Fort Hood issue," Del Gaudio said. "It's very vast, it's in the center of nowhere, it has its own ZIP code. I mean, it's huge. ... What happens is there, again, a lot of things get swept under the rug. Why isn't there more accountability for a post, a base, that size?"
Del Gaudio said Basaldua's family first got in touch with Pink Berets partly due to its involvement in the "I Am Vanessa Guillén" documentary on Netflix. The chief operating officer for the organization said the similarities between the two incidents are alarming.
"What really got me is, again, Latina in her 20s that's where for me it becomes personal," Del Gaudio told Military.com. "Ana, like Vanessa, always wanted to be a soldier. She always wanted to enter the military. That was her goal."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
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