FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Live ammunition mixed up with blank magazines led to a deadly disaster at Fort Campbell in October.
Kevin Rodriguez, a private first class assigned with Company A, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, "Rakkasans," was killed in a live-fire training accident on Oct. 6.
According to a report shared with The Leaf-Chronicle, the accident occurred after a magazine containing live ammunition was mixed up with the magazines containing blank ammunition.
Rodriguez "sustained a single 5.56 mm round wound in the left chest/shoulder area in close proximity of the heart area," according to the report.
He was pronounced dead at 10:21 a.m.
"The gunshot wound was sustained on Range 17 during a blank fire iteration of team live fire progressive training," the report continues. "(Rodriguez) was acting as OPFOR (Opposing Force) as the team bounded towards the range objective. At this point in the day's training, no live ammunition had been issued. It is not known at this time how or why the soldier that shot (Rodriguez) had live rounds loaded in his weapon."
Since the accident, the Army has released little to no information regarding the accident, citing the ongoing investigation. The silence has left some, especially Rodriguez's family, wanting answers.
Joan Rodriguez, Kevin Rodriguez's sister, said the Army told their family about the ammunition mix-up shortly after his death. However, they're still waiting on more answers. They don't know how or why the ammunition was mixed up.
Joan Rodriguez said Thursday the family is anxiously awaiting the results. She said they were initially told 72 days, but the investigations have been taking longer.
"How in the world?" she said. "They're (the Army) supposed to be extra cautious. How could something like that slip through their fingers?"
Kevin Rodriguez had recently returned from spending nine months in Afghanistan when the accident occurred. Having returned from deployment, his death took the family by surprise.
"I was shocked, to be honest," Joan Rodriguez said in October. "What do you mean my brother is dead? He's supposed to be safe on base."
The three-month ongoing investigation, with so many questions still unanswered, has also made them frustrated.
"I don't want to speculate on anything, but what can you do but speculate when they have no answers for us?" Joan Rodriguez said. "Why is it that the investigation hasn't been handed to us. They need to give my mom the autopsy results and they haven't done that. We haven't received anything apart from my brother's personal belongings."
Fort Campbell, the 18th Airborne Corps and the Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker declined to comment.
The 18th Airborne Corps out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina is conducting its own 15-6 investigation – standard investigations following a soldier's death. The Combat Readiness Center in Fort Rucker, Ala., is also conducting its own safety investigation, said Col. Holly Silkman, chief of public affairs with the 18th Airborne Corps.
No easy answer
The report was sent to Matt Harding, president of Safe Tac Mag, from Dave Key, safety director at the National Training Center in California. Key confirmed the email Thursday.
Key said that when an accident such as this one occurs, these reports are shared with their offices. The report does not directly identify Rodriguez, but cites the same day and time he was killed in the training accident.
Safe Tac Mag is a company started by Harding that has designed a magazine specifically designed to fit blank ammunition. Since blank ammunition is shorter than live ammunition, Harding installed a steel bar in the front of the magazine to prevent any live ammunition from being loaded in it.
Harding has a personal stake in accidents such as the one that killed Rodriguez. Harding, an eight-year Marine veteran, lost a close friend in 2006 to a similar training accident when live ammunition was mixed in with blank ammunition.
"Why don't we just change the mag?" Harding said. "I've been trying to fix this problem for two years ... then you lose a soldier in one of the most decorated units in the Army and still nothing."
Harding has been pushing the Army to buy his product, but has not been successful. Part of the reason, Key said, is the magazine's cost, which is $25. Harding claims his product would remove any chance of human error in similar incidents.
"They're very expensive," Key said. "With the proper training, leadership, all the stuff that we teach is a much better control measure than relying on this magazine that's very expensive."
How the live ammunition was mixed up with the blank ammunition is still unknown.
However, Key said he doesn't think a device such as Harding's could have prevented the accident at Fort Campbell.
"The magazine, from my understanding, was from another training event," Key said.
The Army estimates the results of the investigation will be available in about six months, Silkman said.
Until then, Rodriguez's family will have to wait.
"At the first sign somebody died in a training accident like that, they should have done something," Joan Rodriguez said. "I don't find that fair, not just to my family, but the soldier who happened to be involved; it's not fair to him either.
"It was an institutional mistake, not only do we have to live with the fact that my brother's gone, but he (the soldier) has to live with the fact that he killed one of his friends."
Reach Ray Howze at 931-245-0750 or on Twitter @rayhowze_leaf.