On March 13, Pvt. Ana Basaldua Ruiz, a soldier assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, was found dead in an apparent suicide after telling her family about sexual harassment she had faced in the Army.
The death set off immediate scrutiny as it echoed that of Spc. Vanessa Guillén three years prior, which led to pledges of increased transparency from Army officials.
Yet a second soldier also died by apparent suicide that same day, and base officials, already bracing for a firestorm surrounding the circumstances of Basaldua’s death, didn’t disclose the additional fatality.
Spc. Katerina Weikel,who served in 64th Military Police Company, 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade, was also found dead on March 13.
Weikel’s death was discovered by Military.com through two obituaries, one published in her hometown newspaper in New York state and a brief obituary posted by a funeral home in Killeen, Texas, outside the base walls.
She died just one day after her 29th birthday.
Weikel’s death was initially reported as a suicide off-base, but the circumstances of the incident are still being investigated, a person familiar with the case told Military.com.
Lt. Gen. Sean Bernabe, the commander of III Armored Corps and the top Army official at Fort Hood, held a press conference on March 17, but neither he nor a subsequent press release disclosing Basaldua’s death made mention of a second soldier dying. Bernabe took only a few questions from the media at that press conference, but declined to provide details about Basaldua’s death.
That death and allegations of harassment immediately drew parallels to Guillén, a 20-year-old soldier at Fort Hood who was sexually harassed and murdered in April 2020. The 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.
In December 2020, more than a dozen Fort Hood officials were fired or suspended following a damning investigation known colloquially throughout the Army as “The Fort Hood Report.” The findings uncovered systemic failures at the installation tied to safety for soldiers, particularly female service members. It served as a flashpoint for the service and how it’s publicly perceived and was intended to change how commanders treat their formations.
Since then, the installation and its respective commanders have become increasingly cloistered, according to multiple officials at the base who spoke to Military.com on the condition of anonymity. Most shared the sentiment that the report and surrounding media pressure were so cataclysmic that the base has effectively gone into lockdown when it comes to communicating incidents with the public and the press.
When asked why Fort Hood officials, including Lt. Gen. Bernabe, did not inform the public that a second soldier had died, a spokesperson said Weikel’s death happened off-base. There is no Army policy forbidding the service from speaking to the public about deaths that occur off military property.
“The death of Spc. Weikel was off-post, as a result, the Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and the Killeen Police Department are conducting a joint investigation into the death of Spc. Weikel,” Lt. Col. Tania Donovan, a III Armored Corps spokesperson, told Military.com in a statement. “As this is an ongoing investigation, no further information will be released at this time.”
Donovan added there is no policy which Fort Hood discloses when a soldier assigned to the base dies, saying those situations are “case by case.”
Army leaders and their public affairs teams are generally forbidden from withholding information that may embarrass or otherwise lead to bad press for the service, according to Army doctrine.
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 Monday that the revelation of a second death the same day as Basaldua was “concerning,” but may not have been immediately shocking to base leaders.
“The fact that two happened within a close proximity, honestly, probably didn’t even raise any eyebrows for them, because suicide is such a common thing that happens at Fort Hood,” Timmons told Military.com. “It’s very, very problematic.”
Weikel enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2019 and graduated from boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. A year later, in 2020, she deployed to Poland and Germany.
“We will forever be proud of our soldier and her selfless service to our Nation,” the obituary in the Wallkill Valley Times read.
On March 23, she was interred with full military honors at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, Texas.
Basaldua was a 20-year-old private who was a combat engineer with the 1st Cavalry Division. Fort Hood officials have said there was no foul play in her death, and her family as well as Army officials told Military.com that it was reported as an apparent suicide, though investigations in the case are ongoing.
Itzi Ortega, Basaldua’s aunt, told Military.com in an interview on Monday that her niece always wanted to join the Army and moved from Mexico to the U.S., where she had citizenship through her father, to serve.
“She was caring; she was wanting to live her dreams,” Ortega told Military.com. “She didn’t have to come here. She still decided to come here, because she thought there would be an opportunity to serve better and to fulfill her dream.”
While Fort Hood officials have not publicly discussed circumstances regarding Basaldua’s death, Basaldua’s mother told media outlets that her daughter described being sexually harassed, a claim that Ortega said she had heard as well.
Army Criminal Investigation Division spokesman Jeffrey Castro, in response to questions from Military.com about the circumstances surrounding Basaldua’s death, said “no further information will be released at this time” including whether the death was initially reported as a suicide.
“The Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division’s investigation into the death of Pvt. Basaldua Ruiz is ongoing,” Castro said. “As with all death investigations, Army CID is examining any and all potential circumstances that could have contributed to the death of Pvt. Basaldua Ruiz; this could include the investigation of potential crimes that would not normally be within the investigative purview of Army CID.”
Ortega told Military.com that a memorial was held for her niece on base on April 6. Basaldua’s mother has had to process the pain of unexpectedly losing her daughter with few definitive answers as to what happened from the Army, Ortega said.
“She was her kid; that’s something that you cannot explain the pain,” Ortega said. “I don’t know if my sister will ever have closure, but she will try to live with this.”
Josh Connolly, the vice chair of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights nonprofit that helps military sexual assault survivors and their families, called the revelation of Weikel’s undisclosed death “beyond troubling” and said underscores the need for further reforms at the installation.
“It’s deeply alarming,” Connolly said. “It further reinforces the need for an independent review of the base to look at both the culture and then also, what of the recommendations in the initial independent review have been implemented. But it sounds alarm bells for me.”
Protect Our Defenders has also been advising the Basaldua family and is giving them guidance.
“Ana’s family fully supports the call for an independent investigation into the command climate and culture at Fort Hood,” attorney Ryan Guilds, who had volunteered to help the family through Protect Our Defenders, said in a statement. “The Army investigation into Ana’s death is ongoing, and many questions remain unanswered. We remain reluctantly patient but skeptical, particularly given the Army’s sad history of doing the right thing for its soldiers and their families — especially at Fort Hood.”
The Fort Hood Report found fundamental issues with the Army’s sexual assault and harassment prevention program and across-the-board poor leadership in Fort Hood’s chain of command, much of it zeroed in on the installation’s public affairs that is charged with communicating with the media.
“From the time of SPC Guillén’s disappearance on April 22, 2020, through the remainder of the Spring and Summer months, the Fort Hood [public affairs] found itself unable to adequately inform the public and pragmatically inform public perception,” the report said. “The facts became largely irrelevant as a groundswell of support for false theories and poorly informed accusations took root through social media outlets.”
Basaldua’s death brought on immediate and widespread coverage from the press. It also reached the halls of the Senate.
A letter was signed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; and Elizabeth Warren D-Mass., and sent to the commander of Fort Hood last week, asking for transparency for Basaldua’s death and a thorough investigation into the circumstances.
“We are writing to express our deep concern regarding the circumstances surrounding Private Ana Basaldua Ruiz’s death,” the April 11 letter said. “Once again, Fort Hood has failed the young women who stand up to serve our country and entrust themselves to the Army’s care.”