BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Carelessness on the training range and substandard rescue equipment killed Spc. Jonathan C. Stehle.
Those are the main findings of an Army investigation into Stehle’s death Nov. 8 during an exercise at the Grafenwöhr Training Area.
The tank gunner, assigned to the 1st Armored Division’s Büdingen-based Troop B, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, drowned — contributed to by hypothermia — after the Abrams M1A1 tank he was driving slid into a large, water-filled hole, according to the investigation.
“It is more probable, and very likely if not definite,” the hole was a fighting position dug by another unit during a previous training exercise, wrote investigating officer Maj. Wayne C. Cherry in his accident report.
Rather than reporting the hole, soldiers filled it with trash, concertina wire and pickets, according to testimony in the recently released accident investigation.
None of this was visible the morning of the accident.
The hole “looked like a little puddle, just a regular little puddle that looked like the rest of the puddles in the area,” testified Staff Sgt. Aaron Johnson, who was tank commander that day.
It was “irresponsible” that such a hazard was ignored, Johnson added.
“I’ve been tanking for eight years, and ever since I’ve been a private, we’ve had to clear the battlefield,” he said in accident report testimony. “We mark dug positions and call up an eight-digit grid. Then we have to fill in the training area.
“Everyone knows that.”
Once the tank was in the hole, emergency crews lacked sufficient rescue equipment to deal with the situation.
Rescuers were thwarted by pumps that could not remove water fast enough to keep it from submerging Stehle, trapped in his driver’s compartment.
Vilseck and Grafenwöhr fire departments tried to pump water out.
“However, the pumps and on-hand equipment [were] not adequate … to perform the tasks at hand,” Cherry wrote in his finding. “Their equipment could not reduce the water level inside the tank, and could not pump water fast enough from the hole to allow Stehle’s head to remain above water.”
Near-freezing temperatures induced hypothermia, which rendered Stehle unable to breathe through an air hose as the cold water rose above his head, according to testimony.
As crews fought the rising water, underpowered rescue vehicles on hand couldn’t pull out the Abrams, the Army’s main battle tank.
Two M-88 recovery vehicles with a combined pulling force of 135 tons failed to pull Stehle’s tank out of the hole.
“This shows both the significance of the force with which the tank was mired, and the fact that the M-88 recovery vehicle, designed and built to support the much lighter M-60 series tank, is substandard equipment for the present 68-ton M1A1 main battle tank,” a 1-1 Cavalry officer testified in the report.
If a more powerful Hercules version of the M-88 would have been at Grafenwöhr, “there is little doubt that the outcome of this situation would have been much different,” the officer said.
However, the Hercules is assigned only to U.S.-based armored units.
Following Stehle’s death, 1st AD Commander Maj. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez ordered an incident investigation on Range 301 at Grafenwöhr.
All names, some conclusions and many accident details were censored from a version of the report — sworn testimony compiled under Article 15-6 of Army Regulations — that the Army released to Stars and Stripes.
However, with the assistance of Stehle’s family and soldiers at the accident scene, Stars and Stripes was able to fill in some gaps.
The report finds overall that the Army has a number of problems to address including an institutional failure to communicate.
“Collectively speaking, we continue to allow our units to make the same training errors over and over again” by ignoring lessons learned by previous exercises, Cherry wrote.
Cherry made several recommendations, including:
An effort by Army officials, along with the tank’s manufacturer, General Dynamics Land Systems, to “trouble-shoot and update tank recovery methods,” then distribute the improved techniques Army-wide.
A detailed terrain analysis of the Grafenwöhr training area to create a map identifying potential hazards.
Better policing of range hazards.
However, whether the Army has accepted the recommendations is unknown.
Family knows soldiers ‘did the best they could’
Family members and his comrades are convinced that soldiers on the scene did everything humanly possible to save Spc. Jonathan Stehle.
Many soldiers nearly succumbed to hypothermia themselves in a vain attempt to rescue Stehle after the soldier’s M1A1 Abrams tank slid into a giant mud hole Nov. 8 at Grafenwöhr Training Area.
The Army accident investigation recommended that Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Lightner and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Eggars be recognized for their valor.
“I want to be sure the soldiers who helped rescue Jonathan know that we know — and that we appreciate — that they did the best they could,” said Stacie Storrie, Stehle’s sister. “We know that they worked [tirelessly] to rescue him.”
Soldiers who were present when the accident happened about 10:40 a.m. leaped into action, according to soldiers’ testimony in a November investigation and to members of Stehle’s unit, Troop B, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Armored Division.
Witnesses told an Army investigator that dozens of soldiers — supported by German heavy- equipment crews — worked seamlessly to pull out the tank while other soldiers fought rising water and tried to free Stehle.
“Everything seemed as though it had been rehearsed. It was unusually calm,” one soldier told the investigator. “It was the most orderly accident scene I’ve seen in my experience.”
The tank Stehle was driving — Bandit 66 — slid into an abandoned, water-filled fighting position. Its turret pointed forward, the tank’s 120 mm gun tube burrowed into the earth.
With his driver’s exterior hatch entombed in mud, Stehle’s only escape route was the driver’s exit through the turret. However, that exit is only accessible with the turret pointing to the rear.
With the gun tube and turret stuck forward, Stehle was trapped by wires and safety grating. Troop 1st Sgt. Roy Bartnick worked behind Stehle in the tight, water-filled space inside the turret underneath the main gun, holding the soldier’s head up and assisting with a breathing tube. Soldiers outside “were using anything they could to dig out the mud,” including Kevlar helmets, said Capt. Phillip Sounia, 32, Troop B commander. “But no matter how fast we dug, water kept flowing in,” Sounia said.
“We tried everything possible to get him out of that tank,” testified one soldier. “We used drip pans to bail water out; shovels to dig trenches to reroute the water. We tried prying the [driver’s] hatch open and tried wrenching the tank out of the hole,” the soldier said.
In gut-wrenching testimony, soldiers testified that Stehle was calm as the water rose, but asked his rescuers to hurry because he could no longer feel his legs in the freezing water. But the water quickly rose over Stehle’s head, said the troop’s senior medic.
“His last words were, ‘The water is rising, I’m going under. Tell my wife that I love her.’”
Meanwhile, Sounia’s soldiers continue to train for deployment, “trying to put this behind them, but it’s been tough,” he said. “He was a great kid.”
— Reporter Rick Scavetta contributed to this story.
— Terry Boyd
Relatives lobby for safety changes
On Nov. 4, outgoing U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. Montgomery Meigs sent a memorandum USAREUR-wide stating that during fiscal year 2002 “the Army experienced the worst accident rate, for both ground and air, and number of fatalities in recent history.” He reminded officers and soldiers to make safety a top priority.
Four days later, Spc. Jonathan Stehle, Troop B, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Armored Division, was dead in a tank accident at Grafenwöhr Training Area in southeastern Germany.
Now the 1st AD tank gunner’s family is lobbying U.S. lawmakers and Army officials to make a number of safety changes, including giving Europe-based armored units recovery vehicles capable of handling the 68-ton M1A1 Abrams tank. It is also asking the Army to improve the way it tracks — and warns soldiers about — training ground hazards.
Stacie Storrie, Stehle’s sister, said in a telephone interview from her home in College Station, Texas, that she was most shocked to discover that M-88 recovery vehicles at Grafenwöhr that day couldn’t pull her brother’s tank out of a large, water-filled hole because they were designed to tow older, much lighter tanks.
“It flabbergasts me that the Army has three other vehicles developed, and millions of dollars spent on these vehicles, and they don’t have them” in Europe, she said.
She’s still waiting to hear from Army officials why newer, more powerful M-88 Hercules models are not assigned to Europe.
Stars and Stripes requested to interview Col. David Lawrence, the 1st AD’s liaison to the family, about its requests. Division public affairs officials directed queries to the 7th Army Training Command at Grafenwöhr. However, a 7th ATC spokeswoman said the command has no knowledge of the family’s requests.
Storrie, on behalf of the family, sent letters to Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, asking their assistance in making certain Hercules are assigned to European training areas, and in making other safety changes.
In those letters, Storrie and her husband, David, wrote, “It is our supported opinion that Jonathan’s death will be in vain if the U.S. Army does not react immediately and decisively to utilize the proper recovery vehicle … for future M1A1 extraction under similar conditions. The needless death of our brother, son and husband could have been avoided by simply supplying the Armed Forces with what is already in their care, custody and control stateside to units that are overseas.”
Cornyn responded that he had contacted Department of Defense officials about the family’s concerns, and would relay any reports on the accident.
— Terry Boyd