A Massachusetts family is filing a claim against the U.S. military for $25 million for medical malpractice after the body of their relative was found dead from apparent suicide only days after he was released from a military medical center in 2020.
On Aug. 11, 2020, Sgt. Elder Neves Fernandes, 23, of Brockton, sought help from the Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas, after being subjected to harassment from his fellow soldiers for reporting a “sexual harassment incident” he had experienced, according to the administrative claim.
The claim states that instead of helping him, the center released him on Aug. 17 with “no meaningful plan for his support” and that he was left on a street in Killeen, Texas, to “fend for himself.”
“Darnall breached its duty to Fernandes in a manner that proximately caused his untimely death, and forever deprived his parents and family of his companionship, and Sergeant Fernandes of his life,” the claim says.
The Darnall Army Medical Center did not immediately respond a request for comment.
“Every single suicide is one tragedy too many. We remain saddened by the loss of Sgt. Elder Fernandes and for his family,” Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt, a U.S. Army spokesperson, told WCVB. “The statute passed by Congress allows the filing of an administrative claim by the authorized representative of the deceased. The claim is being investigated by the U.S. Army Claims Service, but as a matter of policy, the Army does not disclose the particulars of ongoing claims investigations.”
Furthermore, the claim said that no search was conducted when Fernandes did not show up on the day of his release. It was not until Fernandes’ mother — Ailina Neves Fernandes — arrived in Texas and demanded a search that one was conducted. On Aug. 25, Fernandes’ body was found hanging from a crooked tree in Temple, Bell County, Texas. The claim claims that his body was so destroyed that an open casket funeral was not possible.
The claim further states that Fernandes was sexually assaulted “shortly” after arriving at Fort Hood. On Aug. 11, he became actively suicidal and was taken to Darnall by his brother-in-law and best friend. Afterward, he was admitted as an inpatient psychiatric patient, the claim says.
“He indicated to staff physicians that he had considered “step[ping] in front of a car” because of recent trauma and workplace stressors, specifically anxiety and depression stemming from a sexual assault that occurred on base just a few months earlier in April 2020,” the claim says. Fernandes had previously reported his assault to his supervisors, but no further action was taken.
Upon arrival at Darnall, Fernandes’ initial assessment showed that he “would benefit from separation from the environment.” Darnall failed to follow through with its plan to remove Fernandes from the situation, the claim said. Darnall also knew that Fernandes checked into a civilian emergency department for suicidal thoughts just a month before he arrived at the center. Darnall also knew that Fernandes had a history of failing to comply with treatment and that he discharged himself the last time he was an inpatient.
“Darnall also noted that Fernandes’ recent, prior treatment consisting of behavioral therapy and medication was ineffective,” the claim says. “In fact, Fernandes confirmed that it was not working, and that he had planned to commit suicide that very morning despite regular treatment but was convinced by his friends to seek help.”
Fernandes’ was discharged from the medical facility less than a week later.
“It was noted in his discharge paperwork that Fernandes had denied “plans or intent to harm or kill self” upon presentment to Darnall, but this notation is expressly contradicted by his admission notes,” the claim said.
Fernandes wasn’t put on any psychiatric medication. Instead, Darnall placed him on therapy which the defendants claim the center knew “failed in the past,” the claim said. Darnall released Fernandes into the same unit that had allegedly caused for his suicidal ideation, with only the assurance that he would have access the care, the claim said.
When Fernandes got discharged, Special Services provided a vehicle to transport him home, but that vehicle failed to start.
According to the claim, “Instead, they brought him to a friend’s home where SSG left Fernandes alone on a stoop, without access to the residence or releasing him to the observation of anyone supposedly tasked with his safety.” Darnall did not arrange for any safety checks. Fernandes was last seen walking toward the Interstate on Aug. 18, according to the claim.
Fernandes’ decaying body was found by a bystander. According to the claim, his body had been “baking” in the heat for several days. The discovery of the body prompted Temple Police Department to conduct their own investigation, the claim says.
As for now, the defendants are waiting to hear back from the U.S. military to move forward with the investigation. Active duty military members are not allowed to sue the military. Instead, they can file for an administrative claim under the Richard Stayskal Medical Accountability Act, and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which became legalized in late 2019.
“This is a brand-new process, this only started three years ago so nobody’s quite sure on how it all plays out,” said Leonard H. Kesten, one of the lawyers representing the Fernandes family. “But as I understand it [the U.S. military] might reach out to us for more information and then they’ll make a determination.”
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