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Death of Fort Hood soldier raises questions about Army's sexual harassment response

Screenshot 2023-03-16 174509.jpg
U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Evan Ruchotzke
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El sol sale en la puerta de Vanessa Guillen antes de la llegada de una delegación del Congreso a Fort Hood, Texas, el 5 de mayo de 2021. La delegación del Congreso se reunió con soldados jóvenes alistados y sus familias y líderes locales encargados de implementar la ley para hablar sobre mejoras en la calidad de vida y la seguridad. Fort Hood ha hecho en los últimos meses.

Fort Hood officials are investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Pvt. Ana Basaldua Ruiz, a 21 year-old combat engineer with Mexican roots. The soldier died on March 13, according to a release from the base.

Basaldua Ruiz, whose home of record is listed as Long Beach, California in military records, joined the Army in July 2021 after becoming a naturalized citizen. She had been assigned to the 91st Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Combat Brigade Team, 1st Cavalry Division since December 2021.

“A loss of any one of our soldiers is a tragedy and it is no different in the death of Private Ana Basalduaruiz [sic]. Our hearts and thoughts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of Ana,” said Col. Christopher Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team. “We have remained in constant contact with both parents of Private Basalduaruiz [sic] and will continue to keep them updated.”

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of PV2 Ana Basalduaruiz [sic] and we extend our sympathies to her father, mother, and her sister,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Sullivan, commander, 91st Engineer Battalion. “Our thoughts and prayers are with them during this difficult time. She was an exceptional teammate that will truly be missed.”

Relatives of Pvt. Basaldua Ruiz told Telemundo that her death appeared to be a suicide, but said they had received little information from the Army. Officials with the Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division said in a statement that no foul play was evident, but did not give details about the soldier’s cause of death.

Alejandra Ruiz Zarco, Basalda Ruiz’s mother, told Telemundo that her daughter had been sexually harassed by a superior at Fort Hood — and had been the target of numerous sexual advances by others on the installation.

In an interview with Telemundo, the soldier’s father, Baldo Basaldua Ruiz, described his daughter as becoming increasingly distressed in the days leading up to her death. It’s unclear if Basaldua Ruiz’s death is connected to the alleged harassment — or if the incidents were ever formally reported to the Army. TPR could not reach the family for additional comment by the time of publication.

“Army CID will continue to conduct a thorough investigation and gather all evidence and facts to ensure they discover exactly what transpired,” base officials said. “Information related to any possible harassment will be addressed and investigated fully.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

The death of Basaldua Ruiz has some parallels with the 2020 passing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén. Guillén disappeared from Fort Hood after telling family she was being sexually harassed. She was missing for 70 days until a work crew found her body in a rural area about 30 miles from the post. The soldier suspected in her killing took his own life shortly afterward.

An independent review panel later found Fort Hood to be a “permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment” and pointed out serious structural flaws in the Army’s prevention program. The Guillén case triggered a national conversation about sexual violence in the military — and legislation to change how it is handled.

Now advocates and lawmakers are pushing the Biden Administration and Congress to scrutinize the Fort Hood investigation into Basaldua Ruiz’s death.

"News of this most recent tragedy took me right back to the day I learned of Vanessa Guillen's horrific murder. What compounded that tragedy was a shoddy investigation, poor communication with the family, an incompetent response from law enforcement, and a toxic environment at Fort Hood that was beyond imagining,” said Josh Connolly, vice-chair of military legal protection group Protect Our Defenders.

“The Biden Administration and Congress…must get to the bottom of what happened to Ana and why. We must also make sure the same inexcusable mistakes made before and after Vanessa's death are not repeated. Leadership at Fort Hood must also inform Ana's parents and the public if she was a victim of harassment or assault,” he added.

“I send my sincerest condolences to the family of Pvt. Ana Basalduaruiz [sic],” Congressman Joaquin Castro said in a tweet. “As we learn more, I urge the Army to conduct a full and thorough investigation into her death — including an evaluation of why Ft. Hood is still failing to keep young soldiers safe.”

Congress passed provisions of the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act into law in 2021 to address issues of sexual assault and harassment in the military. The decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment is now supposed to be made outside service members’ chain of command — and more protections against retaliation have been put into place.

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Carson Frame can be reached carson@tpr.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame