Thursday, September 06, 2007

Trainers faulted in soldier's death

He had phoned for help during Fort Hood exercise in June heat

07:37 AM CDT on Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Associated Press

FORT HOOD, Texas – Army Sgt. Lawrence Sprader set out under the searing Texas sun on a map-reading exercise, carrying a cellphone in case he got hopelessly lost or fell ill in the hills and ravines of Fort Hood. And still he didn't make it out alive.

For more than an hour on June 8, a disoriented and dehydrated Sgt. Sprader used his phone to repeatedly call superiors and tell them of his plight. The 24-year-old Iraq war veteran's decomposing body was discovered four days later in the thick underbrush.

A 1,700-page Army investigative report, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, details a multitude of procedural violations, judgment errors and alleged acts of misconduct by Army trainers that not only contributed to Sgt. Sprader's death but also put 300 other soldiers in danger that day, including about two dozen who required medical attention for heat-related illnesses.

Army officials last week announced they have suspended the officers in charge of the leadership-training academy that ran the exercise. Their lawyer said seven soldiers were reprimanded and another was demoted for lying about the timing of his last phone communication with Sgt. Sprader. They could face criminal charges.

John P. Galligan, their lawyer, said the Army is trying to make scapegoats out of them. "This is a tragic accident," he said.

Sgt. Sprader disappeared in a rugged, 1.5-square-mile expanse of scrub, tall grasses and cedar and juniper trees.

Exactly how many calls he made is not specified in the report, but his father, Larry Sprader of Prince George, Va., said there were 16 – about half outgoing, half incoming. Mr. Sprader said the last seven were incoming.

Many were one-minute calls; according to the report, calls are frequently dropped in the remote area. The report indicates that Sgt. Sprader talked to someone at least twice and that he said he could hear a vehicle's horn.

Typically, lost soldiers are rescued by trainers who honk their horns and rely on the trainees to listen for the sound and guide them in the right direction.

The exercise had been moved up from 1 p.m. because of the heat and, as a result, the soldiers were rushed through a lunch break. Investigators believe Sgt. Sprader did not have a chance to refill his two one-quart canteens before being sent out on the timed exercise.

Temperatures were in the low to mid-90s, and the heat index – the combined effect of heat and humidity – was measured at Category 5, the highest possible, at 11 a.m. at a nearby airport. Some soldiers were overcome by heat before the exercise even began.

Sgt. Sprader made his first call at 2:08 p.m., and not long after, three people went looking for him in a vehicle, according to the report. But the Army did not begin to mount a larger search until about 3:30 p.m., after the exercise was over and he was the only person still missing.

Training leaders are required to notify their superiors within an hour after a soldier is lost. But investigators said that wasn't done until about 6 p.m.

The soldier demoted for lying told investigators that Sgt. Sprader called at 3:15 and 4:45 p.m., but Sgt. Sprader's cellphone records show the last outgoing call at 2:56 and the last incoming call at 3:08, which went unanswered.

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