Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandez-Vargas

Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandez-Vargas (Fort Hood Public Affairs Office)

AUSTIN, Texas — The body of a 24-year-old Fort Hood soldier was recovered Sunday after a boating accident that led to his drowning in a lake near the Army base, officials said Tuesday.

Spc. Francisco Gilberto Hernandez-Vargas of Woodside, N.Y., was found dead in the water at Stillhouse Hollow Lake at about 1:19 p.m. Sunday in the same area where witnesses had reported last seeing him Saturday afternoon, according to the Bell County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the soldier’s death.

The soldier was riding on an inflatable tube being pulled by a boat when he fell off and disappeared from view, said Maj. T.J. Cruz, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department.

Police said the soldier drowned and they will investigate the events that led to his death. An autopsy has been requested. Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel led the search efforts to find Hernandez-Vargas.

Hernandez-Vargas entered the Army in May 2017 as an automatic rifleman and he was assigned to 1st “Black Knight” Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division since December 2017.

The soldier’s awards and decorations include the National Defense Service Medal, Korean Defense Service Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon and the Army Service Ribbon.

“The Black Knight family is heartbroken by the loss of Spc. Francisco Hernandez-Vargas. Our hearts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time,” said Lt. Col. Neil Armstrong, the battalion commander. “Spc. Hernandez-Vargas served his country honorably both stateside while at Fort Hood and abroad in Korea and Romania and this tragic loss is felt by every member within our formation.”

Hernandez-Vargas is the second solider to be found dead in Stillhouse Hollow Lake in less than three weeks.

The body of Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, was discovered July 17 near the base of the lake’s dam. The Bell County Sheriff’s Department is also investigating Morta’s death, though a preliminary autopsy report stated he drowned. The soldiers were in the same battalion.

Stillhouse Hollow Lake is located about 20 miles from Fort Hood in an area with several public parks that offer waterfront access, boat ramps and hiking trails.

At least 13 soldiers have died this year while assigned to Fort Hood, which is home to nearly 37,000 service members, according to information from the base public affairs office. The base encompasses about 218,000 acres in central Texas.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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