Inside the rash of explained deaths at Fort Hood

The numbers are distressing. Last year, at least 39 Fort Hood soldiers died or went missing. Thirteen killed themselves. Five were murdered. Eleven of the deaths remain unresolved—some legally; others for the victims’ families. The 2020 numbers add to ongoing mysteries, including a 2016 case where a corpse’s hyoid, the U-shaped neck bone typically examined to determine whether strangulation has occurred, was missing. These figures eclipse American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq in the same year. The suicides, which reportedly jumped by as much as 20 percent across the military last year, work out to a rate of one soldier a month. And yet: The data is not really out of the ordinary for U.S. military bases. Last December, a Special Forces soldier and an Army veteran were found dead at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where another soldier disappeared in May and was later found murdered. In 2018, a soldier was allegedly shot and killed in her front yard by her husband at Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, which also has one of the highest rates of suicide in the Army. In 1941, Private Felix Hall was lynched by fellow soldiers, at Fort Benning, Georgia. His killers were never looked for properly and thus never found. Fort Hood might not even stand out were it not for a particularly bad year among many. The stories are gruesome, then heartbreaking, then beyond belief.

Staff Sergeant Devin Schuette was found dead in his pickup truck, fitted with a hose running from the exhaust pipe to the cabin, in January 2016. The death was ruled a suicide despite the fact that the blanket stuffed around the window to hold the pipe in place had been doused in Schuette’s own blood, and Schuette was found with nine stab wounds across his body, including his forearm and his left hand. Schuette’s body was returned to his family “wrapped like a mummy.” Later that year, Private Dakota Lee Stump left his barracks to report for work less than a mile away but never arrived for formation. His body was found nearly a month later, two miles from the barracks. Fort Hood announced that Stump had crashed his car while driving under the influence, though a toxicology report proved inconclusive. Stump was going 82 mph in a 30-mph zone, the investigation report said, and had hit a tree on a mound. No skid marks were apparent, nor did anyone hear the crash. His body was mostly intact but for his hyoid, which was never found. (Marine Lance Corporal Riley Schultz’s death on March 15, 2019, at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, was also ruled a suicide, despite his hyoid being broken. When the family exhumed his body in November 2020 for want of a second opinion, the independent autopsy revealed that the bone had in fact gone missing.) Specialist Justen Ogden’s death in July 2017 was ruled a suicide, but the suicide note Fort Hood produced as evidence did not match his handwriting, according to his mother, Toni. On March 5, 2020, Destanie Sawyer’s five-year-old daughter found her father, Specialist Christopher Sawyer, 29, after he had shot himself dead in the bedroom of their Fort Hood housing. The base might have continued to devour its soldiers had it not been for a missing soldier’s family whose rage, love, and devotion would attract the attention of the media, celebrities, and later the White House, sparking congressional and military investigations.