For most communities across America, Memorial Day events are typically a semi-solemn affair that combine celebrating the military’s achievements with reverence for members who have died in service.

But for the small city of Aiken, South Carolina, Monday’s observance occurred with the tragic Thursday death of Spc. Jayson Reed Haven fresh on everyone’s mind. Haven, 20, died when his military vehicle rolled over during training at Udairi Range, Kuwait, where the infantryman was serving a rotation with the South Carolina National Guard’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry.

His unit was deployed to the small country in support of Operation Spartan Shield, a long-running “force pool” mission that stages National Guard combat troops at transit hubs there in case they’re needed for emergencies like the August 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan. Around 400 soldiers from the 34th Infantry Division’s Spartan Shield rotation — Task Force Bastard — were pushed forward to help secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Haven, who attended South Aiken High School, was mentioned several times during remarks at the local Memorial Day event. Tom Young, a state senator, implored residents to “remember his family in the weeks ahead and remember his sacrifice,” according to the Aiken Standard newspaper.

Dwight Bradham, an Army vet who serves as Aiken County’s top veteran service officer, told Army Times that his daughter attended Naval Junior ROTC with Haven during high school.

“This is just a loss for us here in Aiken County,” Bradham said in a phone interview. “He was a very sharp young man.”

Haven’s JROTC instructor, retired Col. Claude Davis III, was unavailable for interview. But he told the Aiken Standard that his “creative” and “resourceful” former student joined the National Guard to propel himself to his educational goals while serving as a machine gunner.

The South Carolina Guard’s leader, Maj. Gen. Van McCarty, also mourned Haven’s loss, saying “there are no words” that can fully capture the impact that losing a soldier can have.

“Soldiers and their families are the fabric that holds our...[organization] together.” McCarty said in a statement. “There is nothing that I can say or offer to the family of Spc. Haven, but know that my thoughts and prayers and that of a great many South Carolinians are with you. You are not alone in grieving; we are with you.”

The Guard and officials from U.S. Army Central, which administratively manages soldiers deployed in the region, noted that an investigation into the causes of the rollover remains underway.

A series of ground vehicle rollover deaths led a government watchdog to study such accidents. The Government Accountability Office’s summer 2021 report led the Army and Marine Corps to overhaul drivers training and institute other measures meant to reduce such crashes.

It’s not clear yet what type of military vehicle Haven was traveling in, or whether he was in the gunner’s cupola, when the accident occurred. But some types of vehicles are more prone to these accidents than others, despite action from Congress meant to address the issue.

Lawmakers blasted Army and Marine Corps officials in April hearings for not completely using the $183 million that Congress appropriated in 2022 to retrofit old rollover-prone Humvees with anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control features that reduce the risk of such accidents.

The Army is taking “a combined approach of retrofitting our existing Humvees” and buying new vehicles that have the features, said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in an April 19 budget hearing.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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