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Series of problems led to death of soldier pinned under Stryker in 2018, investigation finds

By ALEXIS KRELL | The News Tribune | Published: October 9, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — A soldier killed in a training accident last year at Joint Base Lewis-McChord died after he was pinned underneath a Stryker during a break between missions, according to records of an Army investigation released to The News Tribune this week.

Sgt. Drew Watters, 23, of Evansville, Indiana, joined the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division in September 2017. He was a specialist at the time of his death and was posthumously promoted, the Army said.

“The 7th Infantry Division sends its continuing deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sgt. Watters,” 7th Infantry Division spokesman Lt. Col. Roger Cabiness II said in a statement Tuesday. “The facts and circumstances that led to this incident were thoroughly reviewed and investigated. The command took appropriate administrative and punitive actions based on this review, along with efforts to further prevent this from happening again.

“Protecting our soldiers is a command priority for this division. Safety along with risk management is paramount.”

Pinned by Stryker

Under the Freedom of Information Act, The News Tribune requested records of the investigation into Watters’ death, which the newspaper received Monday.

The documents give this account of the Nov. 4, 2018, accident:

The soldiers had just finished a foot patrol about 6:30 a.m.

“The company was postured in a hasty assembly area under conditions of limited visibility (less than 5 feet) due to darkness, cloud cover and light precipitation,” the investigating officer wrote. “While in the assembly area several vehicles allowed soldiers to dismount,” among them Watters.

He sat on the ground and followed instructions to change his socks, eat and get ready for the next mission.

Then a Stryker about 25 feet away backed up “without the use of mandatory ground guides or using the Stryker’s rear facing camera on the Driver’s Visual Enhancement Device into the center of the assembly area,” the investigator wrote.

Watters probably would not have heard the vehicle getting closer, because other Strykers were idling nearby, the report says.

He was pinned underneath the vehicle.

“Although the incident was reported within a few minutes of occurring, Emergency Services personnel did not arrive on scene until approximately 45 to 60 minutes after the initial report to range control,” the investigator wrote. “After EMS personnel arrived and upon consulting with the on-duty emergency room physician,” Watters was pronounced dead at 7:24 a.m.

Army regulations “require vehicle commanders to walk around their tactical vehicle to check for personnel,” the investigator noted.

Army regulations also state “that operators will move combat vehicles in parking or assembly areas only when there are ground guides present and that vehicle commanders will maintain eye contact with the ground guides at all times while the vehicle is moving,” the investigator wrote.

The report says the driver was awakened and directed to move the Stryker back slowly, without a ground guide in place, and the Stryker was started without a walk-around.

The rear camera reportedly had a defect that caused a blur. An inspection found it would have showed Watters as a thermal image.

“Watters would have presented a large enough obstruction to be visible by the crew had they used the camera,” the investigator wrote.

Company ‘discipline issues’

The company had “discipline issues throughout the exercise with little enforcement of standards,” the report says.

The interior of the Stryker that killed Watters and “other vehicles were littered with debris, MRE boxes, weapons and other equipment poorly secured or stored,” the report says. “The company commander had less than 3 total hours of intermittent sleep in the 30 to 40 hours before the incident took place and set a poor example of effectively managing mission requirements against the natural consequences of mental and physical fatigue.”

Additionally, the investigator wrote that: “None of the subordinate officers in (Alpha Company) had reviewed the risk assessment prepared for the exercise, making them less prepared to implement the controls that the document stated would prevent this accident. These conditions led to an environment where an incident was more likely due to failure to enforce standards, conduct composite risk management, and properly implement controls.”

Getting Watters’ free from the Stryker “was delayed because inexperienced equipment operators and leaders did not fully understand the capabilities of the vehicle,” the investigator wrote.

Watters did not have a pulse five to seven minutes after he was pinned.

The driver tried to use the controls to lift the vehicle.

“When the vehicle did not lift, the driver briefly pressed the ‘down’ controls dropping the vehicle 1-4 inches,” the investigator wrote.

The control the driver was using isn’t designed to raise the Stryker, but there’s a way to override that that could have helped lift the vehicle off Watters.

That override wasn’t part of the 40-hour driver’s program, the minimum training required, that the driver had attended, the report says.

Rescue attempt

Soldiers worked to free Watters by digging him out. Jacks were inoperable or weren’t able to support the vehicle’s weight.

The crew was told not to drive the Stryker off Watters for fear of making his injuries worse.

“Few leaders on the ground were trained and certified to supervise personnel operating Strykers, to include the company commander,” the report says.

Range Control was immediately notified but was not given the full details of the incident for another 25 minutes, “during which time A company personnel worked to free” Watters.

Range Control contacted Madigan Emergency Medical Services “and was informed they no longer dispatched medical personnel. Range Control Called 911 two minutes later. The 911 Center dispatched EMS and fire units who arrived on scene approximately 45 minutes after the incident occurred.”

Watters’ death “likely could have been avoided by adherence to known standards of protocol and enforcement of individual and unit discipline,” the report says.

Although the immediate response to the incident wasn’t effective, “the actions of the soldiers on the ground were appropriate and done with the utmost urgency in the attempt to save” Watters’ life, the investigator found.

“The delayed response by Range Control and Emergency personnel dispatched to the incident location likely did not contribute to” his death “but warrant review and improvement,” the report said.

Recommendations

Lt. Gen. Gary Volesky, I Corps Commanding General, examined the findings.

“I neither approve nor disapprove the investigating officer’s recommendations for mandatory Stryker driver/operator training and mandatory new-leader Stryker training,” he wrote. “I am forwarding this investigation and these recommendations to the 7ID Commander to assess whether this or other training would address the safety and training deficits that the investigating officer identified, and report within 30 days the results of that assessment and proposed training implementation plan.”

He also didn’t approve or disapprove recommendations for “revised Range Control (standard operating procedures) and updated emergency reporting coordination and procedures.”

He wrote that: “Instead, I Corps will coordinate with the JBLM Garrison Command to review and research Range (standard operating procedures) and reporting standards.”

The I Corps Commander disapproved recommendations “regarding joint training between (Stryker brigade combat team) units and emergency responder (subject matter experts) on JBLM,” and about “the development of trapped-person extraction battle drills.”

Husband and father

Watters enlisted as an infantryman in 2015. He was awarded the Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Ribbon and the Army Service Ribbon.

Loved ones told the Courier and Press in Evansville, Indiana, that Watters had recently reenlisted and was excited at the prospect of relocating to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 2019, two hours from Evansville.

He liked the outdoors and reading spy mysteries and books about history, the news outlet reported.

His mother, Karen Watters, told 14 News: “Drew’s death was needless from what we understand. He loved the Army. He never ever regretted going into it.”

His father, Scott Watters, told the station: “He definitely had a vision and he wanted to do it. He’s completely unafraid. And he understood the consequences that existed.”

A high school friend, Max Mooney, told 14 News that he was the best man in Watters’ wedding and that Watters’ was supposed to be his.

“It was one of the best phone calls of my life,” Mooney told the station last year. “I asked him to be my best man in my wedding next year. And hearing him and how happy he was to be asked ... I’m just glad that he knew what he meant to me before this accident happened. But he was truly just a good friend that I’m going to miss a lot. That we’re all going to miss a lot.”

Mooney went on to tell the station: “I was lucky enough to be there on his wedding day and I was there next to him as his best man and that was one of the best days of my life just seeing how truly happy he was. And I can’t wait to meet his son and see him grow up and hopefully he’s just like his dad because we can’t have too many Drew Watters.”

©2019 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
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