By Heather Graham-Ashley, III Corps and Fort Hood Public AffairsJanuary 12, 2012
FORT HOOD, Texas (Jan. 12, 2012_ -- A massive outpouring of support from Fort Hood, surrounding communities and social media helped a potential nightmare for one Fort Hood family end happily last week.
Shortly after 4 p.m. on Jan. 5, a Fort Hood Police bike patrol officer was flagged down in Kouma Village for a report of a missing/runaway child, said Capt. Jonathan Caylor, public information officer, Fort Hood Directorate of Emergency Services, or DES.
After an initial search of the immediate area yielded nothing, the search efforts were expanded. Further investigation revealed the 10-year-old girl, a student at Clear Creek Elementary, left on her own accord and was playing with other children her age at a location off post, according to information provided by Fort Hood DES.
The girl was eventually located at a residence in Killeen and officers from the Killeen Police Department facilitated her return home, the DES report stated. The girl was reunited with her parents around 8:30 p.m.
Efforts to locate the girl were coordinated with Fort Hood DES and other assets, including the mayor and community life noncommissioned officer at Kouma Village, Kouma residents, Fort Hood Soldiers and family members and the police departments from adjacent communities, but social media played a vital role in the search.
"Facebook provided great information," Fort Hood Garrison Commander Col. Mark Freitag said. "It was a great community and post effort to find a missing child."
More than 100 volunteers from Fort Hood and surrounding communities flooded Kouma to assist with search efforts, prompted by a posting on Kouma Village's Facebook page at 5:42 p.m. that announced the missing girl.
"The community involvement was overwhelming in a good way," Caylor said. "We had a group of selfless people who wanted to come out and volunteer."
That initial Facebook post quickly spread across the Internet as volunteers came out to search, others re-posted the alert, and well-wishers posted hopeful messages for her safe return.
"What's impressive was that Facebook was able to make this happen," volunteer searcher Susan Beaver said, noting that she found out about the missing child from an area Facebook page.
Staff Sgt. Rochelle Peters, 1st Medical Brigade, came to help, accompanied by her husband.
"There was a child missing," she said. "You want to do all you can to help find her and make sure she's returned safely to her family. If that were our child, I'd hope that people would do the same."
News stations picked up the story and broadcast the news about the missing child and the search.
Using social media and reports from those searching, Fort Hood DES officials worked to verify information from the Mobile Command Center they established in Kouma Village.
"It is important to note that this is a success story from all perspectives," Caylor said. "Social media was a significant driving force for the response, and support given to ensure the safe return of the missing/runaway child was overwhelming."
Fort Hood DES has specific standard operating procedures for situations such as this, Caylor said, but the use of social media and its resulting flood of information and volunteers could add to that SOP.
"We need to educate our communities on how to support and what support to give," Caylor said. "Social media is what helped us determine there was a need to educate the communities about where to get their sources and how to organize efforts."
He reiterated that all information involving a situation at Fort Hood must first be released through III Corps and Fort Hood Public Affairs.
Facebook postings that include conjecture, unverified information and opinions can confuse an investigation, so the benefits of two-way dialogue provided by social media can become a little problematic.
"Kouma Village did the right thing by posting on the III Corps and Fort Hood Facebook page," explained Christie Vanover, command information officer, III Corps and Fort Hood public affairs.
Some postings asked why an Amber Alert was not issued and why Fort Hood did not use the "Big Voice" mass notification system.
"An Amber Alert is tied to a vehicle," said Lt. Jennifer Rounds, supervisory police officer, Fort Hood DES. "There was no vehicle involved in this situation, so no Amber Alert would have been issued."
Caylor said the mass notification could have been utilized, but the search was resolved before the system was needed.
Future trainings and briefings conducted by Caylor at neighborhood town halls and to village mayors will include the SOP for missing children, he said.
In the end, the important part was that the girl was returned safely, thanks largely to the enormous outpouring of help and support from the community.
"Everyone came together to make sure the girl was returned to her parents safe and unharmed," Caylor said. "The reunion was good."
(Sentinel Design Editor Dawn Pandoliano contributed to this story.)