KILLEEN, Texas — It was a hot, sunny day on Saturday — a perfect day for a barbecue at Killeen’s Long Branch Park.
Slowly, the guests began to arrive, reports the Killeen Daily Herald. As each person showed up, some bringing their families, smiles split faces and hugs were given as if they had not seen each other in years.
They were all “family,” after all — former members of 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. Most were part of the unit three years ago. One is an active-duty soldier who was a part of the training when a military vehicle overturned in a Fort Hood low-water crossing, killing eight soldiers and one West Point cadet.
One attendee at Saturday's barbecue is one of the three survivors of the 12 soldiers originally on the light, medium tactical vehicle, or LMTV — an Army truck — involved in the June 2, 2016, accident. The father of another of the survivors also attended.
All had gathered to honor and remember the fallen — most still live in the Killeen area, so they gather to ensure the military brothers and sisters they lost that day will never be forgotten.
It was a day that changed the life of then Spc. Tyrail Friend forever, a day when an angel saved his life, he said.
Flash flood warnings had been going off on soldiers' phones all morning, Friend said, and everyone was rather uneasy about going out into the field.
"Nobody wanted to go out there, you know what I mean?" Friend said. "It wasn't something that needed to be done. (Staff Sgt. Miguel Angel Colonvazquez) went to go talk to our platoon leader. I'm not sure what the conversation was, but ... we had no choice, we had to go. We did what we were told to do, like every other day."
So Colonvazquez, along with Friend, Spc. Christine Faith Armstrong, Spc. Rogelio Morales Jr., Spc. Kameron Robinson, Pfc. Brandon Austin Banner, Pfc. Zachery Nathaniel Fuller, Pvt. Isaac Lee DeLeon, Pvt. Eddy Raelaurin Gates, Pvt. Tysheena Lynette James, Spc. Yingming Sun and U.S. Military Academy at West Point Cadet Mitchell Alexander Winey loaded into the LMTV and headed out for training.
The ride out wasn't really anything special, Friend said, and he didn't really know anything was going wrong until the LMTV seemed to hit a bump and then start weaving, as if they were on a boat.
"It was like you could feel yourself floating. I was like, this don't feel right," he said. "Water started coming in and everybody froze. I pushed the tarp up and it looked like I was on the ocean. I looked to the front of the truck and I could see it was starting to turn."
Friend said he jumped over the back gate of the LMTV, thinking he could swim to safety. The current was so strong, however, he was immediately in a fight for his life.
"I kept trying to hold on to something, but everything kept breaking — everything ... would break, that's how fast I was going," he said. "The current kept sending me under, and for some reason I kept thinking, 'this can't be happening.' It didn't really hit that it was real until I realized I didn't have any more breath."
The muscle fatigue from fighting the current turned his arms into "limp noodles," Friend said. The next thing he knew he was fully underwater with no breath left.
"I remember seeing flashes of my kids, my wife. I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm dying.' I was just praying in my head," he said. "I kept saying, 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,' and then I saw an angel lifting me up."
Coming out of the water felt as if someone had grabbed onto his uniform at his shoulders and jerked him out, he said.
"I got to the top of the water and it felt like I had had my air the whole time," Friend recalled. "It was like (the angel) blew air into my lungs."
Friend was able to grab a branch that held and began screaming for help. The body of Armstrong floated past him and he tried to grab her while holding onto the branch.
"She was already dead, but I tried to grab her," he said. "I couldn't get her."
Friend said he couldn't recall how long it took for him to be rescued, but the near-death experience has given him a new perspective on life.
"That was the most fear I've ever felt in my life," he said. "I wasn't thinking about dying, but now I think about it every day. I felt like I could have done something more (to save the others). I had survivor's guilt, and had it for a while — sometimes I still do."
A lot of counseling, therapy and telling the story has made it easier on him over time, Friend said.
"It makes you more grateful for everything," he said. "Anything you used to think is a problem is really not. It could be a lot worse. And even if it's not worse, you're not dead."
One of those helping Friend and the other veterans with the unit during the accident to cope has been "Papa Rog" — Rogelio Morales Sr., father of Morales Jr., who is attending college in Pennsylvania and could not make it to Saturday's event.
"These guys are like my sons, my kids — we all bonded like one big family," he said. "They're always at my house."
The day of the accident was a normal day for Papa Rog, sitting on the back porch of his Pennsylvania home enjoying the weather when his son called.
"He said, 'Pops, I was in an accident.' That's all he said," the senior Morales recalled. "I said, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'Yeah, but a lot of my buddies died.' The next day, I was down here (in Killeen)."
Morales Sr. said he came down by himself at first, followed soon by his wife and they made Killeen their home to be close to their son and his fellow soldiers.
"At first it was hard. These guys ... I tell them they're my kids. I advise them," he said. "I've been blessed with all these guys. I'm not a rich man, but I'm rich at heart (because of them)."
Papa Rog has been a big part of the healing process for many of the soldiers, according to Dasheen Perry, a former soldier who was a private new to the unit when the accident occurred. He was in the motor pool when he found out that Banner, the soldier who had welcomed him to the unit with open arms, had died.
"I tried to follow what he showed me for the few days that I knew him," he said. "It hurt me to find out he passed away in the accident."
Perry was on a cleaning detail at the time and said he remembers that it was continually raining. All of a sudden, people started running around everywhere and the motor pool descended into chaos.
"I see people crying. The whole time, I'm lost, I don't know what's going on," he said. "When I finally figured out what was going on, two or three convoys were headed out to go look for everybody."
Perry said the unit tried to keep details of the accident a secret for a while, but as soon as news surfaced of the deaths, it really hit home to the soldiers what had happened. They were not allowed to talk about it, however.
"I remember it was all the way up until November or December of that year, they were still telling us 'don't talk to the media,'" he said. "Me not knowing the severity of it, I just stayed in my place and didn't say anything."
No longer in the Army and with more experience, Perry said he personally feels blame never should have been placed on Colonvazquez — the top ranked enlisted soldier who was conducting the training.
"Orders came from somewhere," he said. "And he's not here to speak for himself."
Perry added he felt the Army would never reveal what actually happened that day, preferring to lay blame somewhere and forgetting about it. Until then, those still in the area from the unit that day will continue to remember those who were lost.
“That’s what this is all about,” he said of the gathering at the park. “Let’s get the family together, those who are here. Let’s remember them.”