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Family, officials stunned by deaths at Jackson

Three recruits die in less than a month at post

Nov. 9, 2008 - 08:54AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 9, 2008 - 08:54AM  |  
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Cameron Oquendo will never know the soldier his mother, Pvt. Andrea Rosser, could have become.

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Cameron Oquendo will never know the soldier his mother, Pvt. Andrea Rosser, could have become.

Rosser died Oct. 25 on the toddler's first birthday while taking the Army Physical Fitness Test at Fort Jackson, S.C. She was one week away from completing the nine-week basic combat training course.

Rosser's family is still trying to make sense of their 21-year-old's sudden death.

"I just spoke to her about three weeks ago; she sounded wonderful," Rosser's mother, Georgette, told Army Times in an Oct. 30 telephone interview from her Clayton, N.C., home.

What's more troubling, her mother said, is Rosser is one of three privates who have died in the past month attending Jackson's basic training program.

"Three deaths in less than a month — what's happening?" she asked. "We are trying to grieve for our daughter, and we are still trying to grasp what happened."

In addition to Rosser, Pvt. Dominique Brooks, 19, of Houston, died Sept. 25 after having a seizure on her barracks floor, and Pvt. Derryl Britt, 20, of Durham, N.C., died Sept. 27 when he was taken off life support after surgery to repair a brain hemorrhage.

Fort Jackson officials are still investigating Rosser's death and provided limited details of the incident, Jackson spokeswoman Karen Soule said.

Rosser's mother, Georgette Rosser, said post officials told her that the Oct. 27 autopsy performed on Rosser at the Richland County Coroner's office was inconclusive.

"We are waiting for the toxicology results to come out," she said. "She had no pre-existing heath conditions."

Leaders at Jackson said they are shocked by the three deaths.

"I think all of us are surprised both by the close time of their deaths but also by the young ages of the soldiers," Col. Brian Prosser, commander of 193rd Infantry Brigade, told Army Times on Oct. 31. The 193rd is one of two basic training brigades on Jackson.

Both Brooks and Britt were under Prosser's command when they died.

Brooks was in her fifth week of training. She woke up between 4:45 a.m. and 4:50 a.m. Sept. 25 to go to the latrine. Upon exiting the latrine, she fell on the floor. She got up, walked back to her bunk and fell again, Prosser said.

Her fellow soldiers noticed she was having trouble breathing and ran to get the drill sergeant on duty.

At 4:53 a.m., the drill sergeant, who was combat life-saver certified, began assessing her condition.

Brooks was on the floor, breathing heavily, but could answer questions, Prosser said.

"As he was asking questions, Brooks' eyes rolled back into her head," Prosser said.

The drill sergeant ran to his office and called paramedics at 5:08 a.m.

The ambulance arrived at 5:14 a.m. Paramedics began treating Brooks, who had stopped breathing. She was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 6:14 a.m., Prosser said.

It was later determined that Brooks died from a pulmonary embolism, Soule said.

The third soldier, Britt, had been in basic for five days. He and his fellow trainees were running around the barracks perimeter at about 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23.

Britt told the drill sergeant he was feeling dizzy. The drill sergeant told him to go into the barracks, drink some water and sit down, Prosser said.

He came back out and sat down on the ground. After about five minutes, a drill sergeant called paramedics after seeing Britt begin to vomit.

"If my drill sergeants see something that doesn't look right, we get on the phone and let the experts take over," Prosser said.

The ambulance arrived by 7:40 p.m. After about 10 minutes, Britt was rushed to the hospital.

The diagnosis

Late that night, the cadre called Britt's parents and told them their son was suffering from a brain hemorrhage. Britt's parents arrived the next morning to be with their son.

Early on Sept. 26, Britt went into cardiac arrest. Doctors revived him, but he never regained consciousness, Prosser said.

Britt's parents took him off life support Sept. 27, and he died.

"The only thing that was keeping him alive was the breathing machine," Prosser said.

Britt died of hemorrhaging caused by an "abnormal collection of blood vessels in the brain," he said.

In his 30 years in the Army, Prosser said, he has never experienced two soldiers under his command dying so close together in separate incidents.

"I can't say I have ever had to deal with two at the same time," he said. "How could this happen? How could these two deaths happen?"

Family members of Brooks and Britt could not be reached for comment by press time.

Rosser's family traveled to Jackson for an Oct. 29 memorial service for her. They sat with Fort Jackson officials for two hours trying to piece together how Rosser died while attempting to pass the 2-mile-run part of the Army fitness test, which also includes timed push-up and sit-up events.

This was Rosser's fifth attempt at passing the timed run, her mother said. The first three times, she wasn't able to complete the eight laps around the track.

On her fourth attempt, Rosser's mother said, "she ran the eight laps without stopping, but didn't make the time" requirement, which is just under 20 minutes to pass.

Rosser had been running for about that much time when problems arose, Jackson officials said. Rosser was on her final lap when "she began showing signs of physical distress," Soule said.

Georgette Rosser said Jackson officials gave her the following account of the incident:

Rosser's drill sergeant "was running with her," her mother said. "She dropped to her knees. She got up and went down again."

The drill sergeant "called her battle buddies to remove her to the side of the track," Rosser's mother said.

"She was sitting up. Her eyes were open, and she was breathing."

"I asked, ‘Did she say anything?‘" Rosser's mother said. "They said, ‘She didn't say anything.‘"

Paramedics from a local hospital were called.

"They moved her down a hill, down to the road next to stop sign, so that the [ambulance] wouldn't pass the athletic field," her mother said.

Rosser was conscious when paramedics arrived.

"Then she stopped breathing," Rosser's mother said.

The paramedics performed CPR on the way to Richland County Hospital but to no avail, her mother said.

Rosser was pronounced dead an hour later, Soule said.

Family frustrated

Rosser's mother said her family is frustrated that they still don't know what killed her daughter.

"I'm not blaming or pointing fingers right now because I don't know what happened," she said. "I didn't have the ability to be there with my daughter when she passed. I'm relying on the military" for information.

"I'm feeling like ... the only thing I have power over is planning my daughter's funeral," she said.

Before leaving Jackson, the family finished what Rosser had started the day she died.

"We walked her last lap on the track she was doing her PT test on," Georgette Rosser said.

Fort Jackson is the largest of the Army's Initial Entry Training centers.

About 50,000 soldiers cycle through basic training and advanced individual training at the post each year. Jackson trains 50 percent of all soldiers and 70 percent of women entering the Army each year.

The last time a soldier died at Jackson in basic training was October 2007, Soule said. Pvt. Kenneth Reilly died Oct. 27, 2007, from a heart attack.

Aside from Rosser, Brooks and Britt, 22 soldiers have died over the past five years while assigned to the Army's five basic combat training centers, Training and Doctrine Command spokesman Harvey Perritt said.

Eight of those deaths occurred on duty and 14 occurred off duty, he said. Of the eight, five were related to physical training or heat casualties, two were weapons-related and one was caused by electrocution, Perritt said.

Of the 14 that occurred off duty, Perritt did not give the causes of death, but he said the soldiers died while on leave, while serving as hometown recruiters or while in the process of traveling to their next duty station.

U.S. military-wide, unexpected deaths among recruits are rare, according to a 2004 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study looked at "sudden deaths," a term that refers to death that occurs unexpectedly or without trauma.

Over a 25-year period, "only 126 of 6.3 million recruits who entered basic training" fell into this category, the study stated.

Of the 126, "108 occurred during exercise," researchers found. In 44 of the 126 cases, the cause of death was never determined, according to the study.

The study stated the causes of death ranged from heat stroke and asthma to internal bleeding.

Before entering basic training, all recruits undergo a physical examination at one of several United States Military Entrance Processing Command centers. In addition to blood and urine tests, the exams can include "specialized tests" if required, according to the command's Web site. Recruits also have their medical history reviewed to look for any pre-existing medical conditions.

Medical waivers

The Army occasionally grants what are known as medical waivers to recruits with health conditions that could make them ineligible for service.

Rosser's mother said her daughter needed no such waiver.

The Army would not say if Britt or Brooks entered the Army under medical waivers.

"It would be a privacy act violation to release that kind of data," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb told Army Times.

Rosser left home for Fort Jackson on Aug. 27, her mother said. She had enlisted in the reserve for six years. She was scheduled to go to Fort Eustis, Va., in November for advanced individual training to become a transportation specialist, her mother said.

"She was unmarried and she wanted to go in and make a better life for her and her son," Rosser's mother said. She said she and Rosser's father, Andre, will raise Rosser's son.

Rosser's mother said she understands that investigations take time. She said she hopes the results of the toxicology report will tell her how her daughter died, but that could take up to six weeks to complete.

She admits being aggravated with Jackson officials, who told her she would have to wait until the investigation report is complete to find out what happened.

"We have to rely on them to know what happened over the past weeks; my thing is, ‘OK, don't be closed-mouthed to her parents who need closure,‘" she said.

"One day, her son is going to ask us, ‘What happened to my mother? Why did she die in the military?' We are going to have to answer those questions."

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