Fort Drum aviation unit released from seven-day lockdown amid outcry from families

By GORDON BLOCK | Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. | Published: November 26, 2013

FORT DRUM, N.Y.— The soldiers of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 277th Aviation Support Battalion were allowed to return to their homes and families Monday night after being confined in a seven-day lockdown in a cold hangar during a search for missing inventory.

The $50,000 in missing items turned out to be more than 100 bayonets and approximately 800 scopes, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The items were first reported missing Nov. 18, and the lockdown began that afternoon.

The 10th Mountain Division’s public affairs office said Monday night that it could not confirm the missing inventory, as the investigation was ongoing. The office said lockdown is standard procedure when items of value are unaccounted for.

The office said the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade’s rear detachment commander, Lt. Col. Enrique Ortiz Jr., made the decision to release the soldiers.

The post would not release other details, but several sources, whom The Times is not identifying to protect soldiers from potential retribution, described the conditions the soldiers faced and the stress placed on their families.

The 100 to 150 soldiers in the unit slept on the floor or on cots in the company area of a cold hangar at Wheeler-Sack, as weather conditions sank below freezing. Soldiers searched for the items inside and outside for hours each day.

Family members were allowed to visit at first, but contact was restricted further toward the end of the seven days, mostly to delivery of clean clothes. Cellphones were confiscated.

Food was limited mostly to Meals Ready to Eat packages, with occasional trips allowed to the airfield Shoppette and Burger King. Soldiers were prevented from going to their cars without an escort from a sergeant first class or higher-ranking leader.

During that time, some soldiers with families had to put their children in round-the-clock child care. A small number of soldiers’ pets were dropped off at the airfield so they could be fed.

One soldier’s wife described struggling with a medical matter. With little family support, she feared what would happen if her situation required hospitalization.

That problem became more tense early Monday, when soldiers were told to turn in their cellphones. The woman said her husband told her she would have to leave a voice mail message if anything happened.

She told the Times she could not understand why the entire company was held in confinement, when many soldiers had never been around the missing inventory.

“Who signed for those?” she said, referring to whoever was in charge of the equipment. “That’s who should be responsible.”

Another soldier’s girlfriend said Monday that soldiers had to tell families a few days earlier that their Thanksgiving plans were in doubt.

“Sorry I can’t come to see you,” the girlfriend relayed. “I’m stuck here.”

Another spouse said the unit leadership all the way up to the brigade’s rear detachment leadership had given mixed messages to families and soldiers.

The spouse told of filing complaints with various company, brigade and post officials. The spouse reported being told by the post Inspector General’s Office that the commanding officer overseeing the lockdown could have held the soldiers up legally until the end of their Army contracts.

The spouse said the soldier’s absence created stress at home.

“I’m tired of my children crying at night,” the spouse said.