The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The military failed him’: Soldier’s bones found months after he was labeled a deserter

Authorities found the remains of Army Private Gregory Wedel-Morales, who disappeared nearly a year ago. His case was listed as a desertion, but the family has long insisted that he would not have walked away from the Army just days before he was scheduled to leave the service. (Courtesy of Kimberly Wedel)
Placeholder while article actions load

Since the remains of Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales were discovered in a shallow grave outside Fort Hood last month, the mystery of his disappearance has only intensified.

The Army declared Wedel-Morales a deserter a month after he went missing last August. But his family said it was unlikely he had just walked away from his post. He was only days away from leaving the service for good, propelled by his goal of working on wind turbines on the Texas coast.

Officials have said the Army doesn’t track down alleged deserters, but his family is left wondering: What if it had tried?

“The military failed him by not looking,” his mother, Kimberly Wedel, told The Washington Post. “They just assumed the worst and let it go.”

Wedel-Morales, 23, was a goofy prankster with a cowboy hat always within reach, his family said, and drove a truck constantly splashed with mud back home in Sapulpa, outside Tulsa. He enlisted as a truck driver in 2015, serving tours in Kuwait and South Korea while stationed at Fort Hood, the Army said.

He was days away from leaving the Army when he called his mother on Aug. 19 last year to ask for gas money, Wedel recalled. That was the last conversation she had with her son. The last time anyone heard from him was the next day, according to Army investigators.

His case sputtered for nearly a year, as the family reached out to Army investigators nearly daily for updates that rarely came, his mother said.

But his disappearance rose in prominence during a search for another missing soldier at Fort Hood, Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was last seen in April in a separate case. The remains of the two soldiers were both found outside the installation in late June, two days apart.

Both families said the Army had not searched for either one with enough urgency and empathy.

The Army offered a $15,000 reward for information on the disappearance of Wedel-Morales more than nine months after his disappearance. That came one day after Kimberly Wedel asked in an email why there was no previous reward, as there was in the Guillén case, according to an email provided to The Washington Post.

The reward increased to $25,000 on June 15. His remains were found four days later, after investigators received a tip, the Army said. The Army then said officials suspected foul play was involved.

The Wedel family said it was tangled in the Kafkaesque rules of military bureaucracy and the Army’s initial disinterest in finding him. A soldier who doesn’t report for duty in 30 days is automatically designated a deserter, the Army said, even if it doesn’t have evidence of where the soldier is, or if they are experiencing physical or mental duress. Another soldier then takes their place in the unit.

“Generally, the Army doesn’t proactively search for deserters unless a serious crime has been committed,” said Lt. Col. Emmanuel Ortiz, an Army spokesman. The Army coordinates with various law enforcement agencies to bring in deserters, he said, and the policy on personnel absence is under review.

In this case, the Army said, Wedel-Morales’s status as a deserter meant his family could not hold a funeral with military honors or bury him in a national cemetery — a fact that left the family in turmoil for months.

The Army would not pay to have his remains shipped back to Oklahoma, his family said, adding that they had started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs.

Wedel said she learned late Tuesday during a conversation with a commander that her son likely died before Sept. 21, when he was designated a deserter. He has been reinstated to active duty and will be buried with honors, the Army said Wednesday.

“They didn’t do any real searching until they got a lead,” Nick Wedel, Wedel-Morales’s younger brother, said of the Army. “If an M16 goes missing, they shut down an entire unit to find it. Why don’t they do that for people?”

The family has been told he may have been shot in the face, he said, though medical examiners have not provided a cause of death.

In the military, missing troops are commonly viewed as malingerers or cowards who have shirked duty, said Kayla Williams, a former Army noncommissioned officer and director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

That clashes with efforts the military has made to curb suicide and destigmatize mental health issues, she said. When a soldier goes missing, Williams said, “commanders are not thinking what is wrong and if this person having a mental health crisis.”

The intensity of the search for a missing soldier comes down to the commander, said an Army officer and former military attorney who worked on AWOL and desertion cases, including at Fort Hood. Some commanders may call family members and inquire about known whereabouts, or speak with soldiers who know them.

But for many others, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” as the focus turns to the soldiers in their formation, said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

The Army said it was administratively separating Wedel-Morales when he disappeared, which could have fueled belief he was not worth finding, he said.

“There was no real effort to look for him,” he speculated. “It’s more antipathy.” However, it is also difficult to throw a lot of resources into looking for every soldier declared a deserter, he said. More than a 1,000 soldiers are listed as active deserters, with some on the lam for decades.

The family plans to bury Wedel-Morales in a ceremony at Fort Gibson National Cemetery in eastern Oklahoma, where his great uncle is buried and where his grandfather plans to be interred.

The family feels some vindication now that Wedel-Morales has been reinstated as a soldier who died on duty, Kimberly Wedel said.

“It answers one question and opens the door for so many others,” she said. “We still don’t know who or what or why.”

Read more:

‘The military’s #MeToo’: Vanessa Guillén’s slaying has many servicewomen revisiting their own deep scars

Vanessa Guillén may have faced harassment before her disappearance and death, Army says