EL PASO -- Asia Graham enlisted in the Army right out of high school to follow in her father’s footsteps; Her mother Nicole Graham says he served for 23 years. After his death, Asia wanted to take care of her mother.
“She joined the military to make me a dependent. I was living in a trailer: roach-infested, no heat,” Graham said.
Her daughter Asia was "full of pride and excitement” at basic training according to Nicole Graham. But her mood changed dramatically about a month after she arrived at Fort Bliss in December 2019.
“She begged her brother to come live with her. She didn’t want to be alone,” said Nicole Graham.
Anthony Graham, 22, moved to El Paso in early 2020 to be with his younger sister “Basically, from the first day when I got here, I kind of noticed that my sister’s glow was not the same,” said Anthony Graham, Asia’s 22 year-old brother.
After he moved to El Paso in early 2020 he says Asia confided in him that she had been sexually assaulted.
“When she told me, I just cried.”
Fort Bliss began a criminal investigation into the sexual assault on June 1 last year. According to the Army, the investigation happened “immediately” after Graham reported she was sexually assaulted by fellow soldier Christian Alvarado. But her brother says Graham, first reported the sexual assault in February.
“How is it that we wait from February until June to first sign the paperwork in order to get this rape started, the case started?”
Amy Franck, founder of Never Alone, an organization that works with victims of sexual assault in the military is also asking questions.
“When we started advocating for the family, the mom showed us these text messages and we’re like this child is now speaking from the grave,” said Franck.
“We have text messages from her. That's where she says that she reported it to her chain of command in February,” Said Franck.
In an email response to this reporter’s questions about the contradictory timelines, a spokesperson said that there’s an investigation into “the claim that Pfc. Graham reported the assault earlier than our records reflect- due to information received from a third party. The third party claims the report was received by a squad leader, not a commander.”
There are also questions about what happened after the sexual assault was reported. Graham had moved into an El Paso apartment with brother but was ordered back to the barracks. Junior soldiers aren’t allowed to live off base unless married.
“She was forced to stay in her barracks where her rapist was two doors down,” said Anthony Graham.
According to Fort Bliss Pfc Asia Graham was provided the option of expedited transfer which she declined.
She was found dead in her barracks room on New Year’s Eve, almost exactly a year after she was sexually assaulted. During Alvarado’s court martial, the army released findings of an autopsy showing Graham’s cause of death was an accidental drug overdose from a mix of fentanyl and synthetic marijuana.
“She had to see her assailant every day and as a result, it drove her further down,” said Ret. Col. Wes Martin. He has combated sexual assault in the military since the 1990s. Martin blames a climate of tolerance at Fort Bliss resulted in Alvarado sexually assaulting Graham and multiple other women.
“He was a serial predator. He was a serial rapist and he would continue to be a serial rapist if it weren’t for the fact he’s probably on his way to Fort Leavenworth,” Martin said.
Fort Bliss has not confirmed whether Alvarado is serving his 18-year, three month sentence at Fort Leavenworth, the military prison.
“She was betrayed twice. She was betrayed by Alvarado. She was betrayed by her chain of command,” Martin said.
Two bipartisan bills aim to change the way the military handles sexual assault cases. El Congresswoman Veronica Escobar and Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia of Houston are among nine members of Congress who introduced a bipartisan bill June 23 to move decisions for prosecuting sexual assault and other serious crimes out of the military's chain of command. The Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act is the House companion to a bipartisan Senate bill named for the murdered Fort Hood soldier.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently said he supports letting independent military lawyers handle sexual assault cases rather than the chain of command.
Alvarado was sentenced on June 18th, the same day the Rand Corporation released a study listing the five army installations where women are at highest risk for sexual harassment and assault. Fort Hood topped the list and Fort Bliss was second. The study included variety of factors including “Most of the commands with the highest total risk for women are combat units.” Another factor was the population of soldiers at the military installations.
“For example, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss have large numbers of young, unmarried, less-educated, and junior-ranking soldiers who are at higher risk of sexual assault throughout their service,” according to the study.
In February the new commander at Fort Bliss Maj. Gen. Sean C. Bernabe launched“Operation Ironclad,” a new initiative to eliminate the “corrosives” of sexual harassment and sexual assault, suicide and extremist speech, behaviors and activities.
In a video released by Fort Bliss announcing Operation Ironclad, Bernabe said the said the initial focus is on sexual harassment and assault.
“Despite previous efforts, we still see this corrosive, these destructive behaviors of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our squads in our barracks and on our installation. This fratricide is absolutely unacceptable,” Maj. Gen. Bernabe said in the video.
Those in the chain of command need to be held accountable according to Franck with the organization Never Alone.
“We are calling for commanders that violate federal law, and do not report rapes to the criminal investigation authority, and do not protect these soldiers and follow federal mandates and separate them so they don't have any contact with each other, that they’re court martialed,” she said.
During sentencing at Alvarado’s court martial, members of Graham’s family gave victim impact statements. Anthony Graham was dressed in his dark-colored “Asia suit.” It’s the same suit he wore to her funeral.
“I was going to wear the vest but I’m like no. I’m going to look professional. It’s like a purple vest and a purple handkerchief because purple was her favorite color,” he said.
Graham looks remarkably like his younger sister. “I even shaved my face so when I’m speaking in court the judge can be like ‘oh, that looks like Asia’.”
He told the judge he watched his “happy sister turn into trapped soul in darkness.”
Nicole Graham told the judge the Army recruiter offered reassuring words when he visited her at home to get a signature allowing her 18-year-old daughter to enlist in the Army.
“He told me that Asia is going to be taken care of, that she’s joining a family. He didn’t tell me I’m going to get her back in a box with a flag on it. And she didn’t even go to war,” she said.
Pfc. Asia Graham accomplished her personal mission of taking care of her mother. Nicole Graham moved out of the trailer and is now living in a house paid for by Asia’s death benefits.
Fort Bliss is investigating another soldier death. Pvt. Marriah Pouncy was found "unresponsive" in her barracks June 21st, three days after Alvarado was convicted in a military court. Foul play is not suspected in the 20-year-old’s death according to Fort Bliss.
According to Graham’s mother and testimony during the court martial, Pouncy and Asia Graham were a couple.