Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the efforts made by U.S. Army W.T.F.! Moments to reach out to the Army unit involved in this incident.
Last October, an infantry carrier vehicle broke down during a rotation at the Army’s California-based National Training Center. Two soldiers were asked to guard it until they could get a tow, which came two days later.
But when someone tipped off U.S. Army W.T.F.! Moments, the story turned into two soldiers stranded and alone for nine days until one of them walked miles to find help.
The story made the social media rounds in early November, stoking outrage in some, while others chuckled in recognition. It was a harrowing tale of two joes left to guard a deadlined Stryker in the California desert with no radio and just a gallon of water and two MREs for more than a week.
But according to an Army investigation into the incident — and one of those ad hoc guards — it didn’t really go down that way.
“The report was pretty much exactly what we told the captain,” said former Pvt. Codi Knapp, one of the combat engineers who stayed behind, who has since left the Army. “What ended up on W.T.F. was pretty exaggerated.”
According to the investigation, obtained by Army Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, the soldiers were on their own for two days. They were then shuffled around to other units and locations for another week before being returned to the Rotational Units Bivouac Area, a command center for units rotating through NTC.
But, Knapp said, someone from another unit in training tipped off W.T.F.! Moments, which posted about the incident on Nov. 5.
"No one looked for them, or wondered where they were," the post read. "Finally, last night one of the soldiers walked all the way back to RUBA Ft Irwin, CA, to ask for help."
The post racked up 923 comments and 3,000 shares, getting the attention of officials at Fort Bliss, Texas, where the 16th Engineer Battalion is part of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
The unit launched a 15-6 investigation into the incident, citing W.T.F.'s "unfavorable media coverage."
"The commander appointed an investigating officer to gather the facts regarding the allegation and to determine if any misconduct or negligence occurred," Master Sgt. Jeremy Bunkley, a 1st AD spokesman, told Army Times.
Not only did the investigator find that the viral story was way off the mark, he also didn't find that anyone had made any mistakes in handling the busted vehicle and the two guys left to babysit it.
That was surprising to the soldiers, Knapp said, who were in disbelief that their unit had left them twisting for nine days, bouncing from unit to unit as their own platoon went ahead without them.
Knapp, however, was accused of failure to an obey an order or regulation, as well as making a false official statement. In the end, one of their noncommissioned officers was held accountable.
"One soldier received a counseling from the company commander for failing to report their whereabouts to the chain of command," Bunkley said.
'Negative, I'm still here'
On Oct. 29, A Company's Stryker A11 broke down with a coolant leak. The soldiers were at a tactical operations center for 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, so leadership selected Knapp and a specialist to guard the Stryker until it could be towed.
"Both soldiers were told to take all of their gear with them," one of their NCOs told the investigator. "MREs and water was left with the soldiers as we cross loaded equipment."
That was supposed to be a box of MREs and two five-gallon jugs of water, but Knapp told Army Times the platoon jumped too quickly, and he wasn't able to grab all of his gear.
"He also claims that he and [redacted] were left with three MREs apiece and a five-gallon water jug roughly half full," the investigator wrote.
On Oct. 31, the soldiers and the vehicle got a tow to the brigade support area. They were still there three days later when the BSA jumped, leaving them behind with a refill on MREs and water.
The radio and satellite communication systems in the Stryker were out, so they had nothing but their cell phones— which aren't allowed to be used in the field— to get a hold of their leadership. On Nov. 2, they texted their chain of command, who had since moved on in the training mission and had little visibility about the plan for the two soldiers.
"We are up on everything and we have been stranded for [seven] days," Knapp wrote to an unidentified NCO, who asked if he had MREs and water. "But we are good!"
Knapp got a ride back to the RUBA to have his back, which was causing him pain, looked at on Nov. 4, when a heavy equipment transport came to tow the A11 and the remaining soldier to another BSA.
"Yeah I’m good now, Sergeant," the remaining soldier wrote in a text. "[They're] supposed to jump again tomorrow but [I don't know]— they said I’ll be gone tomorrow. They think we fixed all the small stuff on the truck that we could."
Two days passed.
"Negative I’m still here," he responded when the NCO asked whether he'd made it out. "I’m trying to get back shit just keeps going wrong."
In the end, the investigating officer found that the platoon had handled the situation properly, though one NCO was counseled for not briefing the situation up the chain of command.
"Platoon leadership was not at fault or negligent regarding the status of [redacted] and [redacted] and A11," the investigator wrote. "The platoon left vehicle and crew with A/4-17 and after change of mission, returned to recover it."
'Unfavorable Media Attention'
But before the soldiers were even back to their unit, someone had tipped off W.T.F. about their situation. It was someone in an attached unit who'd heard about what happened, Knapp said, and then passed along the stranded soldiers' contact information.
Fourteen people sent messages to W.T.F. corroborating the incident, resulting in the Nov. 5 post on Facebook, an unnamed spokesman for the group told Army Times.
"We reached out through our own network to confirm or refute the reports," he said. "We came into contact with the two soldiers via phone and text who claimed to be on site. Their story was a bit more restrained than the initial reporting in terms of what they were left with and the contact they had with their leaders."
According to his records, the investigating officer attempted to call W.T.F. on Nov. 10, leaving a voice message for an 813 area code number. The spokesman said he was not aware that the Army had reached out.
W.T.F. has made the shift from Army humor Facebook page to news organization in the past year and a half,the spokesman said, and is still working out the kinks in its reporting process.
"While it is not policy to reach out to the Army prior to publishing, it is the right thing to do," he said.
In this case, W.T.F. reached out to the unit’s public affairs officers, but they did not receive a response until 24 hours the article’s deadline, the spokesman for W.T.F said.
The spokesman added that the group has made it a regular practice since January 2016 to reach out to official Army spokespersons and leaders to try to get official responses to some of the pieces it has posted.
However, in May, another viral story — this one dealing with pregnant soldiers reportedly being forced to go into the field, resulting in stillbirths — turned out to be inaccurate.
That story prompted W.T.F. to issue a retraction and the editor who posted it to resign. The site is finding its way in terms of forging a traditional news organization’s relationship with the Army.
"The Army has slowly acknowledged our reach and is generally good about replying to our queries, but they have a bit further to go in our eyes,"the spokesman said.
On the other hand, W.T.F. is working to be taken more seriously, he said.
"At the same time, we acknowledge we too have a way to go in professionalizing our news gathering apparatus," he added. "We depend heavily on submissions, and we recognize the difficulties in confirming stories while at the same time maintaining the confidentiality of our sources."
In the end, though, he said it's W.T.F.'s priority to break news.
"With this is mind, it's difficult sometimes to reconcile the reports we receive with the formal response from Army units,"the spokesman said. "We do our absolute best because our one million followers deserve accurate information without sacrificing speed."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT