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A soldier's death at Fort Hood raises questions about sexual harassment

The Army says there is no evidence of foul play thus far in Pvt. Ana Basaldua Ruiz's death, but several Latino civil rights group are calling for an independent investigation.

Itzi Ortega stayed in touch with Pvt. Ana Basaldua Ruiz through social media, where they occasionally chatted. Now she regrets that her talks with the young woman she calls her niece were not more direct.

“I saw her growing up like my own child,” Ortega said and then began to cry.

Basaldua Ruiz, 20, was found dead Monday at Fort Hood, an Army base in Central Texas. Fort Hood officials have said that thus far no foul play is evident but that her death is under investigation.

"Army CID will continue to conduct a thorough investigation and gather all evidence and facts to ensure they discover exactly what transpired," officials said in a statement, referring to the Army Department's Criminal Investigation Division. "Information related to any possible harassment will be addressed and investigated fully."

Basaldua Ruiz’s death has renewed focus on Fort Hood and the Army’s handling of sexual harassment claims after Basaldua Ruiz’s mother and friends told Noticias Telemundo that she had said she was sexually harassed, including by one of her superiors.

“The comments her mother made were eerily similar to Vanessa Guillén’s mother’s comments,” said Domingo Garcia, the president of the civil rights group the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz.
Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz.Courtesy Basaldua Ruiz family

Garcia was referring to Pfc. Vanessa Guillén, who was murdered in 2020 after she complained about sexual harassment by a supervisor. Police suspect Guillén was killed by Spc. Aaron Robinson, who died by suicide as police moved in to arrest him. (Guillén was promoted to specialist posthumously.)

Fort Hood did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Basaldua Ruiz, 20, had spent some of her young years living with Ortega's brother and his wife, who is the sister of Basaldua Ruiz's mother. They were a close community in the Mexican town of Tacámbaro, in Michoacán state.

Basaldua’s father, Ubaldo “Baldo” Basaldua, referred a call from NBC News to Ortega.

Ortega said Basaldua Ruiz had told her only that she was fine when she asked how she was, but she acknowledged she didn't take enough time to really talk to her.

“I need to make a note to talk to my nieces more often because of this, because I feel guilty about it," she said. "I only knew through her parents how she was doing."

Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz.
Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz.Courtesy Basaldua Ruiz family

Basaldua Ruiz was a reader from age 5 who loved to dance and loved music a lot. She had read all of the books by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, Ortega said. She spent time with Ortega's other nieces, competing over books to read. She liked listening to Selena Gomez, and she loved plants. "She loved to see flowers naturally. She loved to smell fresh lavender," Ortega said.

Basaldua Ruiz also was very organized, neat and disciplined. She liked to exercise, and she thought the structure of the military would help her, Ortega said.

"She wanted to travel the world, do big things, being in the military. She wanted to have a successful career in the military," she said.

‘Still some significant issues’

Guillén's remains were found two months after her family launched a campaign to find her. Her death set off a social media campaign by other survivors of sexual abuse and harassment in the military demanding change.

An independent review panel excoriated the command climate at Fort Hood, saying it created a permissive environment for sexual assault and harassment. Fourteen base leaders were removed after investigations of Guillén's death, which also led to legal reforms.

One of them is the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, which became law in December 2021, criminalizing sexual harassment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Army Spec. Vanessa Guillen.
Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén.U.S. Army

"Obviously there are still some significant issues," said Queta Rodriguez, a retired Marine captain who served on the independent review committee. "There certainly are some similarities to what we saw last time. It is really disappointing and disheartening. I really feel for the family and all her fellow soldiers, as well."

One of the big takeaways of the independent commission's report was that the military needs to take care of the well-being of its members.

"We understand the military is the military and they have a mission to accomplish," Rodriguez said. "But there was such an emphasis on the mission itself and not the people, but if you don't take care of the people, the mission is not going to get accomplished."

LULAC has called for an FBI investigation so a third party looks into the charges. The American GI Forum, a Latino group that advocates for military personnel and veterans, has joined the call for an independent investigation.