Flash flood warnings had been issued, and the crossing had been designated as off-limits, but a platoon heading out for some Sergeant’s Time training on the morning of June 2, 2016, didn’t know that.
Nine soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division were killed when their Light Medium Tactical Vehicle crossed a creek at Fort Hood, Texas, and was swallowed up by seven feet of water.
Their bodies were later recovered by rescue personnel.
“My god, they are not actually thinking about crossing that, are they?” one witness recalled to the investigating officer, in a report obtained by Army Times via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The 423-page investigation concluded that the fault for the accident rested with the vehicle commander, who ignored warning signs and ordered the young, inexperienced private driving the LMTV into the creek.
The incident was preventable, the investigation found, citing three fateful decisions by Staff Sgt. Michael Colon-Vasquez.
But beyond that, there also had been a breakdown in safety communications and procedures at Fort Hood, including proper training for vehicle drivers.
“I also find that, although not directly causing this incident, procedural shortfalls at the installation, company and platoon levels — specifically, training on local hazards, driver’s training, and low water crossing hazard reporting — should be improved to more effectively mitigate risks in the future,” the investigator wrote.
The accident took the lives of Colon-Vasquez, Spc. Christine Armstrong, Pvt. Isaac DeLeon, Pvt. Eddie Gates, Pfc. Zachery Fuller, Pvt. Tysheena James, Spc. Ying Ming Sun, Pfc. Brandon Banner and Cadet Mitchel Winey, who was visiting from West Point.
Colon-Vasquez and his platoon set out for convoy operations training at 10:20 a.m. on June 2, 2016.
Unbeknownst to the 18 soldiers, according to statements given after the accident, the National Weather Service had issued a flash flood advisory early that morning, and Fort Hood’s Range Operations and Installation Operations Center had put out a low-water crossing report as well.
Essentially, vehicle traffic was suspended from tactical low-water crossings and hardstand mid-water crossings.
The advisories came after severe storms had pummeled Texas for days, causing widespread flooding across the state. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster across 31 counties, and heavy rain was falling in some places at a rate of up to 3 inches an hour, according to The Weather Channel.
That might not have been an issue for the convoy until Colon-Vasquez made his first fateful decision: Veering off of E. Range Road onto a tank trail.
The trail itself was open, but prone to flooding. During the ride, he moved his 12-man vehicle to the front of the line, leaving three vehicles with two soldiers each trailing behind.
His second decision, the investigation found, was continuing on the tank trail after driving through two large puddles — one was deep enough to rush water through the doors of one vehicle.
At that point, Colon-Vasquez’s platoon leader suggested the convoy return to the main road, where a bridge over the creek would have provided safe passage.
But the staff sergeant disobeyed that order, the investigator found.
Instead, he ordered Pvt. Tysheena James to continue driving across the mid-water crossing at Owl Creek at approximately 11 a.m.
“Due to flash flooding at Fort Hood, the powerful current at Owl Creek caused their LMTV to immediately wash downstream, overturn, and submerge,” the investigator wrote.
Soldiers who watched in horror from the other vehicles described seeing waves, rapids and white caps as they prepared to cross the creek.
“Debris were moving faster than a man could run,” one soldier, whose named was redacted, said in a statement.
There were 12 soldiers in the LMTV. Three were rescued by soldiers in a vehicle following the LMTV, officials said.
Emergency crews from both the Army and surrounding first-responder agencies were on the scene over the next several hours. Just before 3 p.m., a crew found the empty LMTV, and later the bodies of five of its occupants. The other four were found the next afternoon.
‘Apathetic safety mentality’
Though Colon-Vasquez was ultimately blamed for the accident, the investigation into the soldiers’ deaths found a list of shortfalls at Fort Hood, III Corps and down to the unit level.
As a result, the investigator included several recommendations to “mitigate risks in the future,” the investigator wrote in the report.
The first recommendation was for the installation operations center to make sure that when low-water crossing reports go out, they are distributed to all subordinate commands, and those commands confirm receipt up the chain.
The investigator also recommended that the installation operations center make sure all subordinate units acknowledge severe weather procedures.
The center also was asked to clarify the low-water crossing report’s color-coding system, so that everyone is clear on the definitions of “closed,” “red,” “amber” and “green.”
The report was set to red on the day of the accident.
Fort Hood should also implement a tactical marking system for early flood warnings, so that soldiers in vehicles would know as they pulled up to a crossing that the water is already too high.
In this case, the LMTV drove into seven feet of water, despite only being able to withstand 30 inches, the report said.
The investigator then took aim at vehicle driver training, citing James’ inexperience as another reason for the accident.
Witnesses told the investigator that Colon-Vasquez selected her to drive precisely because she needed the practice, but that she wasn’t certified for it. Further, the report found, the staff sergeant ordered James to drive the 1.4 km stretch of tank trail to help with familiarization.
“The benefit gained by inexperienced drivers from traveling that limited distance was far outweighed by the risks it created,” the investigator wrote.
The report also found that F Forward Support Company didn’t have a formal driver’s training program consistent with Army regulations, or one that trained specifically on that company’s vehicles and on the hazards particular to Fort Hood.
There is local hazard training, but it is a glitchy online course, and soldiers are supposed to print out their certificates themselves, the report found.
In James’ case, the investigator wrote, she showed up at the company fresh out of 88M advanced individual training and had limited on-the-job experience.
“Regardless of whether the formal driver’s training program would have prevented the incident, such oversights contributed to an apathetic safety mentality in the Company,” the investigator added.
The recommendations included fixing that driver course to include local hazard training. The investigation also recommended a review of all driver qualifications on Fort Hood, and it called for restrictions on anyone whose qualifications are incomplete.
“FORSCOM and III Corps recently conducted extensive inspections into issues related to driver’s training,” Maj. Gen. John Uberti, deputy commander of III Corps, wrote in his investigation endorsement. “We are currently analyzing the results of those reports and taking actions to remediate areas of concern.”
A year later, all of Uberti’s endorsed recommendations have been implemented, according to III Corps spokesman Christopher Haug.
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