Members of Congress are pressing for answers about the death last month of Pvt. Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz, who was a Long Beach resident before she enlisted in the Army in 2021.
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Chuck Grassley, Maizie Hirono and Elizabeth Warren wrote last week to the commanding general at Fort Hood, where Basaldua Ruiz was found dead March 13, to express “deep concern” about the circumstances around her death.
No cause of death has been released, but family members of Basaldua Ruiz have told media that Army officials indicated her death may have been suicide, and Army officials said publicly three days after her death that “no foul play is evident.” She had reportedly told loved ones shortly before she died that she was being sexually harassed by a superior on the base.
Long Beach Rep. Robert Garcia seconded the senators’ concerns that the military’s investigation must be transparent. He said in an interview that congressional review of the case should be on the table, especially considering the history of problems with sexual harassment and assault at Fort Hood.
“I’ve spoken with both Pvt. Ruiz’s mother and father and assured them that we will do everything we can to bring justice to their daughter and to ensure that we get all the facts and information about what happened,” Garcia said.
Basaldua Ruiz, 20, grew up in Mexico and moved to Long Beach to join her father in 2020 before enlisting in the Army in 2021, according to news reports. She served as a combat engineer with the 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood, which is about 150 miles southwest of Dallas.
For the senators and others, what happened to Ruiz carries echoes of past problems at Fort Hood, which was put in the spotlight with the 2020 death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén. She had reported sexual harassment before she went missing from the base; she was later discovered to have been murdered by another soldier.
An investigation by the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee following Guillén’s murder, the senators’ letter noted, found the base’s “sexual harassment prevention and response programs were ineffective and that Fort Hood’s command climate presented a ‘permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment.’ … The permissive environment identified years ago has not been eliminated and has claimed another victim.”
For Lucy Del Gaudio, a veteran, advocate and survivor of sexual assault during her military service, Basaldua Ruiz’s death highlights a lack of accountability in Army leadership.
Del Gaudio, chief operations officer of the Pink Berets, advised Basaldua Ruiz’s family on how advocacy groups like hers could assist them.
A report on the review of Fort Hood contained dozens of recommendations (including “zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment”), but there’s little to show they’ve been implemented, Del Gaudio said.
“Where are they on all those action items that were given to them, and why isn’t sexual assault and harassment being taken seriously?” she said.
It’s unclear whether Basaldua Ruiz formally reported being sexually harassed, but for many victims, filing a complaint doesn’t help. When Del Gaudio reported what happened to her, “they made sure I was the issue, not the person who assaulted me,” she said. “He was part of that good old boys club and they protected him.”
The military’s probe could take several months to complete. Garcia said Congress should be thoroughly briefed when there are findings to report, and if it takes holding a hearing to get answers, “that’s something I’m encouraging our leadership to consider.”
A statement from Fort Hood shortly after Basaldua Ruiz’s death said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division “will continue to conduct a thorough investigation and gather all evidence and facts to ensure they discover exactly what transpired. Information related to any possible harassment will be addressed and investigated fully.”
Del Gaudio said she’s disappointed that three years after Vanessa Guillén’s death, sexual harassment and assault remain pervasive problems at the base, and that they stem from the command climate there.
“We always hope when these cases come to light that they’re going to be the game changer, and it clearly wasn’t,” she said.
“I would love to hope that Ana’s (death is) going to be the reckoning, but honestly I don’t see it happening any time soon.”
Army private from Long Beach found dead after complaining of sexual harassment