BAUMHOLDER, Germany — The details seem to change with every story.
More than six weeks after his death, Spc. Jonathan Stehle’s family still has not been able to piece together how the 1st Armored Division soldier died.
All the family knows for certain is that Stehle — an Abrams M1A1 tank gunner assigned to the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment out of Büdingen — died in a Nov. 8 training accident at Grafenwöhr Training Center in southeastern Germany.
Army officials “haven’t told me anything,” said Stehle’s wife, Jennifer, who said she expected to have more information at this point. All she knows is what she’s been able to glean from soldiers in her late husband’s unit, “so it’s just hearsay,” Jennifer Stehle said from her home in College Station, Texas.
Army officials haven’t told the family the exact details of how he died, said Stacie Storrie, Jonathan Stehle’s sister.
No accident report, no autopsy. Only contradictory death certificates — one German, one American.
The certificate with a German stamp states that Stehle died both of drowning and hypothermia. The family received a second death certificate Dec. 18 from U.S. officials listing the cause of death as drowning.
“Part of you wants to know,” Storrie said, “but part of you doesn’t. Do you know what I mean?”
1st AD officials declined to comment, pointing out that the accident is under investigation. Those officials also declined to allow access to Stehle’s commanders until the investigation is complete.
The only detailed document the Stehle family has about Jonathan’s death is a letter of condolence from his platoon leader and tank commander, 1st Lt. Michael Sekerak, a letter that ends, “Thank you for your son.”
“I realize that this is a difficult time for you, but I wanted to share with you my experiences with Jonathan so you know how loved he was, and that he did not die in vain,” Sekerak wrote.
“On Friday, Nov. 8, I saw Bandit 66 (Stehle’s tank) go over a small rise and fall into a large, water-filled sinkhole. We tried everything we could have conceived of to pull the tank out, but it was over halfway buried in mud and water. My soldiers dug in the freezing cold mud and water even after their hands and feet were numb to try and free the tank, but to no avail,” he wrote.
Other soldiers in Stehle’s unit described his tank as driving over a sinkhole and dropping in so far it was nearly vertical, with its gun barrel pointed forward into the mud, Storrie said.
The 68-ton Abrams started filling with cold water and, in a quicksand situation, the more rescue vehicles tried to free the tank, the more it sank.
“The more they pulled, the more they sucked it in,” she said, as dozens of soldiers scrambled to free her brother.
At her brother’s funeral, company commander Captain Bill Sonya told Storrie, “I stood in mud up to my chest.”
Stehle’s mother, Lanelle, was told soldiers tried using three or four M-88A1 Armored Recovery tanks to pull out the tank but “to no avail.”
“Somehow they did finally manage to pull it out, but it was too late,” Lanelle Stehle wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. “I don’t really understand why it worked later.”
Because of the M-88’s 40-year-old design and a relatively small engine, it takes two recovery vehicles to tow one M1A1, according to “The Encyclopedia of Modern U.S. Military Weapons.”
The effort apparently freed Stehle, but he died after being helicoptered to a German hospital, according to information from the 1st AD. The German government didn’t release his body for five days because of their investigation, Storrie said.
German police at the Weiden headquarters, which includes Grafenwöhr, did not respond to repeated requests for information.
Conflicting accounts Early on, soldiers in Stehle’s unit told the family that Stehle laughed and joked to try to steady his rescuers.
“The guys in his unit said that even when they were trying to get him out, he was still smiling, like, ‘Oh, oh. What have I gotten myself into?’” Storrie said during an interview shortly after the accident. “He was still joking. He did not want them to be upset.”
Storrie was somewhat comforted by the idea that the cause of death was hypothermia — though numbed by the cold, he died smiling.
“We didn’t want him to suffer. We think that all he felt was, he was just real cold,” she said previously.
Later, the family found out that probably wasn’t true.
Soldiers from the Black Hawk squadron told Jennifer Stehle differing and conflicting accounts. Some told her that Jonathan Stehle was alive when he came out of the tank and that he died later of hypothermia.
“Others said no, he wasn’t alive. That he drowned,” she said.
It’s easier for her to deal with his dying of hypothermia, Jennifer Stehle said. “You don’t want to think of your husband drowning.”
Still, she’d like the truth, no matter how painful. “There are so many conflicting stories,” Jennifer Stehle said.
“I guess the military tells you all the nice things, like he was joking and calm and all, but then we find out that he was submersed in mud that was over his lips, so he couldn’t talk. … I am upset they lied, but understand why they did,” Storrie said.
The family is left with many questions, but few reliable answers.
Why, Storrie asks, couldn’t her brother get out? Was the M1A1’s hatch stuck?
Was he submerged in water?
Some soldiers in his unit describe rescuers working to scoop out the mud while others fed oxygen to Stehle.
Were soldiers giving him oxygen to keep him from drowning?
“Was he under water? It’s all so sketchy,” Storrie said.
And who was commanding the tank Stehle, a gunner, was driving at the time of the accident?
“You’re probably asking why he was driving even though his assigned position was gunner,” Sekerak wrote in his letter. “At the time of the accident, we were conducting loader and gunner training where each tank commander was independently maneuvering his tank across country.
“Loaders were practicing loading on the move, closed hatch and in personal protective gear. Drivers were practicing driving over uneven terrain performing action drills (quick turns) and anti-tank guided missile avoidance drills. … The training was primarily for tank commanders, loaders and drivers, so Jonathan eagerly volunteered for Bandit 66.”
A spokesman for 1st AD confirmed that two soldiers escaped from the tank, but no one has told the family who they are.
Also, an Abrams has a four-man crew — gunner, driver, commander and loader, but it’s unclear why only three were on board Bandit 66.
Storrie said her family isn’t looking for someone to blame for her brother’s death.
Devoutly Christian and patriotic, they believe Jonathan Stehle left this world according to “the Lord’s timing,” as she put it.
But Storrie said she would just like to know what happened.
And it would be some consolation if Stehle’s death brings changes in the M1A1 tank that will prevent other men from dying in training accidents, she said.
Quoting her father, Murry Stehle, Storrie said, “ ‘If it can save someone else, you need to pursue it!’”
Meanwhile, they wait for the whole story.
“We’re not looking to point fingers,” Stacie Storrie said. “We just want to know what happened.”
Sister: ‘He found what he wanted to do in life’
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — When Jonathan Stehle joined the Army in 2000 at 22, his goal was to fly AH-64 Blackhawk attack helicopters.
But Stehle would have had to do a 1-year unaccompanied tour of South Korea. He had gotten married just six months earlier and didn’t want to be away from his wife, Jennifer, for that long.
So rather than quit on his dream of being a warrior, he went to Plan B and ended up in the storied Black Hawk Squadron, a tanker in the 1st Armored Division.
Stehle became the gunner in the command Abrams M1A1 main battle tank, in charge of the crew whenever the platoon leader leaves the tank.
The Army was a good fit for her baby brother, said Stacie Storrie.
He’d been a cowboy and worked at the local John Deere dealership in his hometown of College Station, Texas. “But when he joined the Army, he said, ‘This is it! I found it,’” said Storrie.
“He’d found what he wanted to do in life.”
“You couldn’t tell him there was another job in the Army besides tanker,” Jennifer Stehle said. “He swore up and down that tanker was the best job in the Army.”
Stehle, a specialist, was proving himself a superior soldier before he died in a Nov. 8 training accident, according to a condolence letter written by his tank commander in the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment based at Büdigen.
The gunner position in the platoon leader’s tank usually goes to the most experienced soldier, wrote 1st Lt. Michael Sekerak. “The fact that I selected Jonathan as my gunner over even more experienced senior platoon members shows the caliber of soldier he was,” Sekerak wrote.
Their tank, Bandit 41, had just qualified superior — the highest rating — on Tank Table VIII just before the accident.
“Jonathan was a key factor in making Bandit 41 the outstanding tank that it was,” Sekerak wrote. He was just a few weeks from his sergeant’s test when he died, Storrie said.
His choice of careers and his success were no surprises, Storrie said. Stehle had favored military haircuts and bomber jackets long before he joined up.
He loved the military, his sister said. “He loved the discipline” of Black Hawk Troop.
He wasn’t the typical soldier, “because a lot of these guys just see it as a job,” said Jennifer Stehle. “Jon loved everything about it. He didn’t mind polishing his boots before he went to work in the morning, and ironing his uniform. He loved it all. Everything about it.”
A good soldier, he was also a good ol’ boy from Texas, Storrie said. Jonathan Stehle was a devoutly Christian guy, but also the kind of guy who would “sit down and have a beer with you.”
“He was one of the people you met and you liked,” Storrie said.
So many people came to his funeral in College Station that the family had to have it in the gym at the junior high school where he played basketball, Jennifer Stehle said. “We estimate 450 people showed up.”
Stehle was true blue, wrote Spc. Jason E. Choate, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 150th Armored Regiment, West Virginia National Guard.
The two were “battle buddies” at basic training at Fort Knox, Ky.
“No matter how tired he was or how late it was, he was always there for me to listen to any problems I had,” Choate said. “There really are no words to describe just how much he did for me.”
When Choate found out Stehle had died, Choate told his father he was going to Texas from Princeton, W.Va., for the funeral “no matter what.”
“I love him like a brother,” Choate said, “and I will never forget all the good times we had.”
Stehle’s parents gave him a small cross to remember their son by, Choate said. “Everytime I get inside of my tank, he will be there with me, watching over me just like he always did.”
— Terry Boyd
When a soldier dies, it sets in motion a number of events.
First, the battalion level adjutant locates the soldier’s casualty notification card for addresses of primary and secondary next-of-kin, according to Army sources.
That information then goes to the Assistant Chief of Staff for Personnel in Washington, D.C.
Once they have the next-of-kin’s address, a soldier of the proper rank is designated as the casualty notification officer.
That soldier would have to be of the next highest rank. For example, if the dead soldier were a captain, the notification officer would have to be a major or higher.
The notification officer often is a reservist who may teach ROTC at the local college, Army officials said.
The notification officer, in uniform, delivers the news in person. A casualty assistance officer becomes the Army’s liaison to the family, helping with administrative issues such as the soldier’s final pay and benefits, as well as funeral arrangements.
On the operational side, the Army begins both a safety center investigation and 15-6 investigation.
The safety investigation looks for the role of equipment deficiencies in the accident, such as earlier problems with the M1A1 gun turret, the source said.
The 15-6 investigation is a more formal legal investigation into the accident in which investigators take witness statements, an investigation that typically takes weeks. Investigators have 45 days, but can receive extensions.
Unit commanders must receive and approve the 15-6 findings before it can be released.
The people the dead soldier designated as the primary and secondary next-of-kin receive the report and may request that other people be allowed to attend a final briefing on the death.
— Terry Boyd