KILLEN, Texas — When Army PV2 Gregory Wedel Morales vanished in August 2019, he was labeled a deserter.
The 23-year-old Oklahoma native, whose skeletal remains were found in an empty field June 19 in Killeen, Texas, would never have abandoned his post on Fort Hood, his family told The Washington Post. Morales was days away from being discharged from the service, a fact his mother, Kimberly Wedel, believes contributed to the lackadaisical attitude his superiors had about finding him.
“The military failed him by not looking,” Wedel told the Post. “They just assumed the worst and let it go.”
Wedel last spoke to her son Aug. 19, 2019, when he called her asking for gas money, she told the newspaper. According to Army officials, that was also the last day he was seen alive, driving his black 2018 Kia Rio off-base in Killeen.
He had gone to a club and met up with friends that night, his mother said.
Morales, who had taken his wife’s last name when they married, was last heard from the following day. His Kia was later found abandoned and a month after his disappearance, he was classified as AWOL, or absent without official leave.
Despite nearly daily prodding from his family, the Army did little to look for Wedel, his loved ones said. Wedel told Army Times her family was told he was an adult and there was no proof anything bad had happened to him.
“The proof is he disappeared. He had no money and he’s not answering the phone. There’s something wrong,” Wedel told the military publication. “I was kind of ignored.”
The family was also never told Morales’ car had been found, Wedel said. In May, his sister-in-law tracked the car down on Carfax, which showed it had been sold in Dallas at an auction, the Army Times reported.
Wedel said when she contacted military investigators, she was told the car had been found in January.
“You don’t think that would be something to tell us? Why keep that a secret?” Wedel said, according to the publication. “That was the first time that they even came close to admitting they might have screwed up, and maybe something did happen to him since they recovered the car and he wasn’t with it.”
The discovery of her son’s remains came only after Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, officials received a tip that Morales’ body was buried in a field about four miles from Fort Hood. According to Army Times, Morales’ clothing was shredded and scattered, and his remains were “lightly buried” in the ground.
Wedel said she’s been told her son decomposed in the field, with dust and debris covering his remains as they sank over time into the ground. She told the Post that authorities believe he may have been shot in the face, though his cause of death has not been publicly announced.
Because he died off Fort Hood, the Killeen Police Department is leading the investigation into his death.
‘They didn’t do any real searching’
The vital tip in Morales’ case came amid the search for a second Fort Hood soldier. The unrelated April 22 disappearance of SPC Vanessa Guillen made national headlines and, largely due to Guillen’s family, helped shine a light on the still-missing man.
Guillen, 20, was found slain and dismembered near the Leon River in Belton on June 30. A fellow soldier who subsequently killed himself and his married civilian girlfriend stand accused of the crime.
Wedel told Army Times she’d requested a reward be offered for information about her son’s whereabouts in September. The reward was not established until after one was offered for details of Guillen’s disappearance.
“It sounds very selfish, but they immediately put out a reward for information for her,” Wedel said. “In September, they told me they were working on a reward for Greg, and so when hers popped up that fast, I said, ‘Hey, come on, what’s the deal?’”
The initial $15,000 reward in the Morales case, offered on April 30, was later upped to $25,000. The tip leading to Morales’ body came four days later.
“They didn’t do any real searching until they got a lead,” Morales’ younger brother, Nick Wedel, told the Post. “If an M16 goes missing, they shut down an entire unit to find it. Why don’t they do that for people?”
The Army typically doesn’t go searching for those it declares AWOL.
“Generally, the Army doesn’t proactively search for deserters unless a serious crime has been committed,” Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Emmanuel Ortiz told the Post.
Morales’ status as a deserter haunted him and his family even after he was found dead. When the Wedels spoke to Army Times earlier this month, they were awaiting his autopsy results so they could make burial arrangements.
Though Kim Wedel was anxious to learn how her son died, the more pressing question for the family was when. A soldier classified as a deserter is not awarded a burial with honors, or given a spot in a national cemetery.
“We’ve been told he’s a deserter unless the autopsy results come back and prove that he’s been dead since he disappeared,” Wedel told the Army Times. “I don’t know if an autopsy can be that specific, but it would be pretty strange to assume he just disappeared for a few months and then was killed right outside the base.”
The Wedel family said the Army would not even pay to have Morales’ body shipped home to Oklahoma. A GoFundMe campaign was established to help them with that cost.
Kim Wedel told the Post she learned Tuesday that her son is believed to have died prior to Sept. 21, when he was listed as AWOL. The Army said Wednesday he has been reinstated to active duty and will be buried with honors, the newspaper said.
Morales is no longer listed on the Army’s list of deserters.
With plans in place to bury Morales at Fort Gibson National Cemetery, located about an hour east of his hometown of Sapulpa, his family can now focus on justice.
“It answers one question and opens the door for so many others,” Wedel said. “We still don’t know who or what or why.”