Death on the Home Front: Hell and High Water in Fort Hood

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WHEN STAFF SERGEANT MIGUEL COLON VAZQUEZ woke up on the morning of June 2, 2016, his schedule looked ordinary, just another summer workday that would hopefully end well before 5 p.m. Sergeant Colon, as his fellow soldiers referred to him, had been stationed at Fort Hood Army post, in central Texas, since 2010, and lived in the nearby city of Killeen with his wife, Ngo Pham, and their three daughters. That morning, he was scheduled to drive to the base for calisthenics, come back home for a shower and a quick breakfast, and then report to his company’s motor pool at 9 a.m. for Sergeant’s Time Training, an instructional session in which he and a few other noncommissioned officers would teach driving skills to more junior soldiers. Colon, a 13-year Army veteran who had served six deployments, would be in charge of that morning’s four-vehicle convoy.

When Colon left home before dawn for his workout, the skies looked ominous, but it had yet to begin raining. But by 8:30, when he was back for breakfast with Pham, a line of heavy thunderstorms was ripping through Killeen. In a matter of minutes, it would push north across Fort Hood, dropping an inch of rain across the area in about 40 minutes. The National Weather Service had already issued flood advisories, and as Colon got ready to depart, Pham could see water cascading down her street.

“Why are you going?” she asked her husband. He shrugged. It wasn’t his call. The officers hadn’t canceled the training, and Colon followed orders.

Pham was upset, but she didn’t pursue the argument. She just told him to be safe. The staff sergeant gave his wife a hug and placed a kiss on her forehead.

By the time Colon arrived at the motor pool, it was 9 a.m. and the heaviest rain of the day was almost finished. Still, he was one of the only soldiers to show up on time. The storms had caused a backup at the main gate to Fort Hood, and many soldiers who lived off post had been delayed. It wasn’t until around 9:30 that all of the soldiers assigned to that morning’s training had assembled.

The deadly low-water crossing. Eric Benson

The soldiers Colon would be leading had all been assigned to a transport and supply unit that they called Distro Platoon (officially, the Distribution Platoon in the Forward Support Company F assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division). Nearly all of them were in their 20s, and most were relatively inexperienced. As part of their regular work routine on the base, members of Distro would often prepare for deployment through live training exercises. On June 2, that meant firsthand practice driving various Army vehicles to a remote area of the base and, once there, getting instructions on how to react to unexploded ordnance and defend a convoy.

Two soldiers each would load into a Humvee, a palletized loading system truck, and a M977 fueler. Colon would command a tower-
ing Army truck known as an LMTV (for light medium tactical vehicle), and lead the training convoy. Nine soldiers would sit in the LMTV’s cargo bed under a tarp. Colon would be up front in the passenger seat of the cab instruct
ing Private Tysheena James, who would be driving. Twenty-one-year-old West Point cadet Mitchell Winey, who had come to Fort Hood
only 10 days before, would occupy a jump seat between them.

At 10:15, with the rain dying down, the convoy pulled out of its motor pool and passed dozens of nearly identical parking lots before heading north on East Range Road to enter Fort Hood’s vast training area. The ride was smooth. Aside from the frequent sight of armored vehicles on the move, East Range Road is indistinguishable from any cedar scrub–lined Hill Country byway. Tall wooden utility poles stand just past the shoulder. A double yellow line marks the middle of the asphalt. The surface is well-paved.

As the vehicles chugged along, the soldiers in the LMTV’s cargo bed were relaxed. “Some people were having conversations, there were people sleeping, I was FaceTiming my son on my cell phone,” Rogelio “Roger” Morales, one of the soldiers, recalls. Every so often someone would crack a joke. “We were all laughing back there, basically. We thought it was a routine convoy, routine training.”

Shortly after mile marker 11 on East Range Road, the convoy made a soft right turn onto an adjacent dirt tank trail. The trail ran for less than a mile, but it was rough going. First, the convoy passed through a puddle in the middle of the track. Moments later, the vehicles passed through a second puddle, this one considerably deeper. The puddle came up to the door of the Humvee, letting water inside, and that vehicle’s commander, Corporal Randall Solomon, called Morales to see how things were going for the soldiers in the LMTV. As far as Morales knew, they were totally fine. After hanging up, Morales quickly wrapped up his FaceTime chat with his son, then dozed off. He was asleep when the LMTV approached a usually shallow tributary known as Owl Creek.

“TAKE THE VESTS OFF! TAKE THE VESTS OFF!” SOMEONE CRIED.
“IF YOU PANIC AND START MOVING, TRYING TO JERK,” YELLED ROBINSON,
“YOU’RE GOING TO RUN OUT OF OXYGEN, SO JUST CHILL.”

Morales woke up when he felt a bump. “I thought it was a pothole,” Morales remembers. Then he saw water begin to flow onto the floor of the cargo bed. He figured the LMTV had gone over another puddle. Then Morales felt another bump, and water started gushing in.

“We stood up, and that’s when the truck flipped over,” he said. “Then we were just under water.”

An Army helicopter searches for the missing soldiers swept away in Owl Creek.
An Army helicopter searches for the missing soldiers swept away in Owl Creek. Austin American-Statesman

THE FIRST THING TO KNOW about Fort Hood—the first thing almost anyone knows about Fort Hood—is that it’s massive. With 342 square miles of hilly, ravine-filled land, the base occupies an area that’s five times bigger than the District of Columbia. Among its features are an open-to-the-public recreation area at Belton Lake and a live-fire range in the middle of the base that’s so big it can simultaneously accommodate free-roaming cattle belonging to local families and incoming F-16s from an air base near Dallas, which occasionally swoop over and drop bombs onto training targets. (If an F-16 blows up a cow, the Army will reimburse the rancher for the lost animal.)

For much of the last two decades, Fort Hood has been one of the busiest deployment hubs in the military—only North Carolina’s Fort Bragg has rivaled it—and the base prides itself on training, maintaining, and equipping a combat-ready force that numbers 36,000. This has meant dealing with the grim toll of battle. More than 575 soldiers stationed at Fort Hood have died during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than any other U.S. military installation.

But recently, as America’s wars have wound down, troops nationwide have become increasingly familiar with the perils of life on the home front. According to a House Armed Services Committee report, 21 service members died in combat in 2017, but nearly 80—four times as many—died as a result of training-related accidents. “America’s Military is ‘at a crisis point,’” the report stated.

At Fort Hood, this assessment would have rung familiar even back in 2016. According to the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, there were 109 accidents at Fort Hood in 2015, a 10-year high. Over those 10 years, 23 Fort Hood soldiers and Army employees died in accidents on post, and this figure does not include two mass shootings—Major Nidal Hassan’s 2009 spree, during which he killed 13 people and injured 32, and Specialist Ivan Lopez’s 2014 rampage, during which he killed three people, injured 14 more, then took his own life.

But the defining feature of everyday life at Fort Hood isn’t danger; it’s normalcy. Drive into the center of the base and you’ll find yourself in an unremarkable middle-class, middle-American town, complete with multiple Starbucks, rows of suburban condo-style homes, and a shopping mall that offers seemingly unsoldierly amenities like a MAC cosmetics shop and a Paul Mitchell hair salon.

Colon embraced this world. He and Pham would routinely host backyard cookouts for his fellow soldiers, and he was generous offering advice gleaned from his long years in the Army. Morales felt particularly close to him. Colon was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Brooklyn. Morales had Puerto Rican roots, too, and had also grown up in the Northeast. He felt like he could ask Colon for help with anything, no matter how big or small.

“If I needed help with our vehicles, help moving—any little thing, he’d be there,” Morales says. “He helped me out when I had my first child. Sometimes I was in over my head.” Of the 12 men and women who would be riding in the LMTV on the morning of June 2, Colon was the only one who had seen combat. None had more than three-and-a-half years’ service time, and four of them had enlisted in the Army just a few months earlier. But as a group, they were a model for the idea that the military can be a progressive social experiment—a melding of races and backgrounds and life experiences working toward a common goal. They were African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and white. They hailed from the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the West Coast. Three, including Private James, the LMTV’s 21-year-old driver, were women. One, 25-year-old Specialist Yingming Sun, was a Chinese immigrant. The youngest soldier, Private Isaac DeLeon, was a 19-year-old kid from San Angelo, Texas, who had struggled to make the Army’s minimum-weight requirement. And they all genuinely liked each other.

“We weren’t friends,” Morales said. “We were family.”

In this Distro Platoon family, the scrawny DeLeon was everyone’s kid brother. Despite his slight physique and young age, he was clear about his big ambitions. He didn’t want to remain in a distribution-and-supply company for his Army career. He wanted to become an elite Special Forces operator. Older soldiers like Morales and Specialists Kameron Robinson, Tyrail Friend, and Brendon Banner were eager to help, encouraging him do extra pushups so he could bulk up. They called him “Little Curry,” because they thought he bore a striking resemblance to the Golden State Warriors star. DeLeon had recently gotten engaged to his high school sweetheart, and he talked with his fiancée every day. The two were planning to get married in July, a month later.

Ngo Pham, wife of Miguel Colon Vazquez, at their former house in Killeen, with a memorial to her late husband, at right.
Ngo Pham, wife of Miguel Colon Vazquez, at their former house in Killeen, with a memorial to her late husband, at right. Lone Wolf Photography

This tight-knit camaraderie was how the platoon operated, and they occasionally got together on their own time, too. On the night before June 2, many of the soldiers in the LMTV had gone out together to Buffalo Wild Wings. Their spirits had been high.

“We were just having fun,” Robinson says. “I just got a new car, a bunch of people just got new cars. So it was a good time. What happened the next day, it was weird.”

What happened was one of the biggest single losses of life ever at Fort Hood and seemingly one of the most preventable. The soldiers hadn’t dropped out of the sky in a faulty Blackhawk or been killed by misdirected explosives, the occasional consequences of even the most deliberate work alongside deadly weapons. They’d driven their truck into the middle of a flash flood. It seemed so inexplicable, so avoidable, and so reckless that it was almost impossible to imagine that it really happened.

THE RAIN ON THE MORNING of June 2 was not unusual or extraordinary. The thunderstorms that passed over Fort Hood started shortly after 8 and, by the end of the day,
would drop about one-and-a-third inches throughout the region.

“It wasn’t anything that anyone would ever think of again,” Ted Ryan, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, told me. “For that region of Texas, that happens a lot. What was remarkable was how wet the ground was.”

The fall of 2015 had been one of the wettest on record in central Texas, with more than 20 inches of rain accumulating. And while the early months of 2016 weren’t as wet, they had not allowed for the soil to dry either. In May, typically the wettest month of the year, at least some rain had fallen on 18 of 31 days, further soaking the region. By the beginning of June, any rain that hit the Texas Hill Country’s shallow, gravelly topsoil would transform immediately into runoff.

“THAT MORNING IT WASN’T JUST A STORM. SO MANY THINGS HAD ALREADY SET THE STAGE FOR SOMETHING BAD TO HAPPEN.”

Officials at Fort Hood’s Installation Operations Center recognized that the conditions were dangerous. At 5:05 a.m., they had issued a report closing all of the base’s tactical low-water crossings to vehicle traffic, and four hours later, at 9:14, they emailed a severe weather warning and low-water crossing report to the First Calvary Division command. But these emails apparently never reached the officers responsible for Distro Platoon.

Still, as the soldiers arrived at the motor pool, some of them were concerned. “Everybody was having an argument, saying, ‘Why do we have to go if it’s pouring like this? It’s real bad out—why don’t we do some training here?’” Morales said.

The soldiers confronted Colon. He told them it wasn’t up to him. They had their orders. Before the convoy left, Morales and Robinson remember, Colon approached the platoon leader, Lt. Johnnie Kaapuwai, to discuss the training.

Kaapuwai would later tell an Army investigator that he had given Colon a “verbal order to not go across any water crossing.” No one else witnessed this discussion, and the investigator noted that the statement “could be self-serving.” Still, he concluded that Kaapuwai “came across as credible” and chose to take him at his word.

Whatever took place in the motor pool and however much soldiers like Morales were concerned, none of them seem to have appreciated the severity of the hazards that lay ahead. After all, as the convoy reached the end of the tank trail, many inside the cargo bed of the LMTV were sleeping.

But while the thunderstorms were gone, runoff from the torrential rainfall had been steadily accumulating in the Owl Creek drainage basin all morning. As the convoy lurched toward the low-water crossing, that runoff was beginning to cascade downstream.

“That morning it wasn’t just a storm,” Ryan, the meteorologist, said. “So many things had already set the stage for something bad to happen.”

Texas game wardens search for the soldiers lost at Owl Creek.
Texas game wardens search for the soldiers lost at Owl Creek. Austin American-Statesman

VEHICLES TRAVELING north or south on East Range Road have two options to cross Owl Creek, which sit about a hundred yards apart. If they’re driving on the road’s paved surface, they can simply continue across a paved bridge, which goes high above the creek bed. If they’re taking the tank trail, they use a concrete pad that sits on the creek bed itself. This is called a tactical low-water crossing site, and, for a vehicle like an LMTV, rumbling across it isn’t usually a problem. The LMTV can ford water of up to two-and-a-half feet in depth, and Owl Creek was rarely more than a trickle at the site of the crossings. The Army’s 15-6 investigation, which had tried to identify the “five W’s (who, what, where, when, and why)” of the accident, couldn’t find anyone who remembered even hearing about another incident that had occurred there.

So it wasn’t surprising that when the Distro Platoon convoy arrived at Owl Creek at 10:56, no one seemed particularly concerned. At the crossing site, the banks of Owl Creek are rocky and topped with thick cedar scrub, and the wide concrete pad that descends down to the water looks like a steeply angled public boat launch. When Owl Creek is flowing, its depth is difficult to assess with the naked eye, and when the commander of the Humvee, the vehicle just behind the LMTV in the convoy, watched the truck in front of him edge toward the creek, he didn’t think the water looked all that menacing. He thought the surface looked relatively calm near both shores, although the current clearly picked up in the middle. He thought the LMTV would make it across.

We’ll never know how the surface looked through Colon’s eyes as he judged the waters of Owl Creek, and we’ll never know what he said to James about how she should proceed. If there was a discussion in the cab of the LMTV, it was brief. After a short stop, the truck accelerated into the water. When the nine soldiers in the cargo bed felt the water from Owl Creek rush onto their feet, they tried to stay calm. Robinson called out for the soldiers to relax, but the water kept roaring in, its level rising to their knees. Banner, who was sitting close to the rear, parted the tarp that was covering the cargo bed. What they saw was not good. The vehicle was surrounded by swift-moving water, and the shore looked very far away.

The soldiers knew they had little time and yelled instructions to one another. “Take the vests off, take the vests off,” someone cried. They were all wearing their full battle rattle—heavy boots, combat helmets, and body armor that weighed more than 30 pounds—and the gear would make it hard for even the most experienced swift-water swimmer to survive. Robinson, a lifelong boogie boarder accustomed to being thrown around in the surf, told the group not to panic underwater. “If you panic and start moving, trying to jerk, you’re going to run out of oxygen, so just chill,” Robinson called out. Those were his final words before the LMTV capsized.

The 15-6 report would estimate that the depth of Owl Creek at the crossing was more than 7 feet, 5 feet above the LMTV’s maximum fording depth. The current was fast, too, flowing at an estimated 3,000 cubic feet per second. The force tossed the vehicle downstream as if it were a piece of driftwood.

As the overturned LMTV moved through the water, Robinson remembers that it bobbed partially upright again. At that point, he says, only three of the nine soldiers remained in the cargo bed.
“It was DeLeon to my left, and then [Pvt. Eddy Rae’Laurin] Gates was hanging onto the back of the tailgate,” Robinson says. “DeLeon goes, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I have no idea.’” Robinson told DeLeon to take off his gear and jump away from the sinking vehicle. Then he turned toward Gates.

“She was hanging on, looking back at me. I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to come get you,’” Robinson remembers. Before he could make it there, the LMTV flipped back over.

Pham's memorial to Vazquez.
Pham’s memorial to Vazquez. Lone Wolf Photography

Robinson found himself underwater, pushed along by the flow. Then, miraculously, he crashed into a branch and grabbed onto it. He had swallowed water, but he was fully conscious and wasn’t badly injured. Using the branch as a support, he hoisted himself out of the rushing creek and onto the shore. Then he threw up.

Robinson saw Morales on the other bank. Then he heard Tyrail Friend, screaming for help. Friend was hanging onto a branch, the rushing current coming close to pushing him off. Robinson wanted to help, but he was finding it difficult to get to his feet. Then he heard the rustle of leaves and branches.

By that point, the six soldiers in the convoy’s other vehicles had dismounted, ripped off their heavy gear, and were sprinting through the brush toward the creek in a furious rescue effort. When the soldiers reached Friend, the soldier’s head was just above the water. Forming a human chain, they hoisted him out, then turned their attention downstream, fanning out to look for the missing soldiers. Robinson joined them, pushing through the brush, yelling out names, and listening for a response. “We didn’t get no responses,” he said.

Eventually, Robinson turned back. By then a massive rescue effort was under way. He still held out hope, convinced that “everybody was just going to show up later.” At that point, he figured, the accident would be “something crazy we’d talk about later in life and whatnot.” But as the news came in, he realized that there would be no shared laughter about that day at Owl Creek.
Starting around 2 p.m., rescue workers located the bodies of James, DeLeon, Gates, and Specialist Christine Armstrong. The next day, as the grim work continued, first responders found Sun, Banner, and Colon together in a debris pile. A little over 20 minutes later, they located the ninth and final casualty of the LMTV rollover, the West Point cadet, Mitchell Winey. Robinson, Morales, and Friend would be the only survivors.

TWO WEEKS AFTER THE ACCIDENT, on June 16, thousands of soldiers gathered inside the Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel near the center of the cantonment area to honor the nine fallen soldiers. Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning was in attendance, as were Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey. They listened as Kaapuwai, Company Captain Andrew Garland, and Sergeant Jordan Singh, who had been part of the convoy, eulogized Winey and the eight members of Distro Platoon. Singh’s words about Colon, whom he’d known for years, were particularly heartfelt.

“Your leadership will never be forgotten,” Singh said. “I’ll keep it with me no matter where I go in the Army.”

“If leaders can admit they made a piss-poor decision, it might bring others to be more aware of the decisions they make and how it affects soldiers’ lives.”

At the memorial, the circumstances leading up to the accident went unaddressed, as did the obvious question of why. Why would they decide to drive into Owl Creek? It wouldn’t be until the following May, nearly a year after the accident, that the Army would make public the results of its 15-6 report of the accident.

The report acknowledged the “procedural shortfalls” at Fort Hood that had led to the missed safety warnings and slammed an “apathetic safety mentality” in Distro Platoon’s company. Junior soldiers hadn’t been properly licensed to drive, no one had even heard of a “local hazards course” meant to familiarize soldiers with the environmental dangers on the base, and leaders had failed to enforce basic training standards, fostering a climate of “increased safety complacency.” The company commander hadn’t asked for a new risk assessment on the day of the accident, nor had he engaged directly with Colon to discuss any adjustments to the training plans. But according to the report, all of these factors were secondary. The primary blame lay solely with Colon.

Colon, the report concluded, made three errors of judgment that contributed to the tragedy. First, he led the convoy off of East Range Road and onto the unpaved tank trail. Second, he continued to lead the convoy down the tank trail even after the two large puddles showed that conditions were potentially dangerous. And third, Colon, the vehicle commander of the LMTV, had almost certainly ordered the truck’s driver, James, to ford Owl Creek even when “there was a safe, functional bridge he could have chosen to use that still would have met the unit’s training goals.”

At first, Kameron Robinson thought the accident would be "something crazy we'd talk about later in life," not one of the Army's worst training accidents.
At first, Kameron Robinson thought the accident would be “something crazy we’d talk about later in life,” not one of the Army’s worst training accidents. Associated Press

As soon as the 15-6 report’s findings became public, some of those most affected by the accident began pushing back. Ricky DeLeon, Isaac’s father, told the Dallas Morning News that the soldiers should have never been out training in the first place, and that the report and its decision to blame Colon amounted to “6 inches of bullshit.” Pham, Colon’s widow, spoke out too, echoing DeLeon’s sentiments.

“If [Colon’s] leaders can admit they made a piss-poor decision and cost the life of nine soldiers, it might bring other leaders to be more aware of the decisions they make and how it affects their soldiers’ lives,” she told the Killeen Daily Herald.

The 15-6 report’s most damning finding against Colon was that not only did he make a poor judgment, but he did so in direct defiance of his orders. If, as the report concluded, Kaapuwai gave Colon a “verbal order to not go across any water crossing during the training,” then Colon’s apparent decision to tell James to drive across the creek was insubordination.

The survivors of the accident find this hard to believe. “If [Kaapuwai] told Sergeant Colon to do that, then Sergeant Colon wouldn’t have gone,” Robinson told me. “Sergeant Colon didn’t even want to be out there in the first place.”

Other soldiers who served alongside Colon told me the staff sergeant was far from reckless. Nick DeGreek, a NCO who served alongside Colon in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me that on convoy missions “as long as [Colon] was driving, I felt 100 percent safe.” Carl Hartzell, a former Army sergeant who worked with Colon on a wrecker truck in Afghanistan, said that Colon’s default mode was to err on the side of caution. “If we were going on a certain run, he would be the first one to say, ‘I’m not so sure about that, I’m not comfortable about that,’” Hartzell told me.

To those soldiers, the decision to place the blame so squarely on the shoulders of a dead enlisted man smacked of politics. “I did a bunch of time in the Army, and as they say, ‘shit rolls downhill,’” DeGreek told me.

Mourners at the memorial ceremony for 21-year-old West Point cadet Mitchell Winey, who had arrived at Fort Hood only 10 days before the accident.
Mourners at the memorial ceremony for 21-year-old West Point cadet Mitchell Winey, who had arrived at Fort Hood only 10 days before the accident. Fort Hood Public Affairs

OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS, the leadership of Fort Hood has completely revamped its infrastructure for low-water crossings. It increased its on-site stream gauges from one to seven, and when the Installation Operations Center decides to change the state of low-water crossings, two alerts go out to everyone on post—an email that requires unit commanders to acknowledge they received it and an Amber Alert–like warning system that pings every cell phone in the area.

Drive up East Range Road now and you’ll pass a large message board just outside the cantonment area that gives a real-time update of the conditions on the range’s tactical low- water crossings. Arrive at Owl Creek itself and you’re greeted by a yellow traffic sign with the words “When Flooded Turn Around Don’t Drown.” The stream gauge itself is embedded in the ground, and green paint on the post indicates whether it’s safe to cross: After only two feet, the color turns to red.

Sitting in the cab of the LMTV, Colon and James didn’t have access to such information. Was it a mistake to enter Owl Creek? Of course. Nine lives were lost. But in many ways, the tragedy at Fort Hood was the result of a systemic failure. Alerts weren’t received, risk assessments weren’t revised, and a routine mission was allowed to go on without reevaluating the changing conditions. Safety systems are designed to minimize the possibility of a human error like misjudging the depth and current of a flooded stream. On June 2, 2016, every one of those safety systems failed.

But in many other ways, the occurrence at Owl Creek was simply what the military has now become accustomed to. Endless wars have defined the military experience over the last two decades, with thousands of casualties. But as the families at Fort Hood know all too well, life in the military is never far removed from tragedy, even on the most mundane days.

For those most deeply impacted by the LMTV rollover, the event hasn’t gone away. After the accident, Morales told me that he “started hitting dark holes” and asked for his separation from the Army. Robinson found it hard to cope. “You can’t talk to nobody; you can’t really go get away from this,” he said. Soon he was out of the Army, too.

Pham left Killeen not long after the first anniversary of the flood and is now living with her daughters in Florida. She hopes that the Army will overturn the conclusions of the 15-6 report, which is unlikely. On Facebook, Pham’s profile page still shows portraits of all nine of the men and women who died that day, and she posts about her late husband regularly, sometimes raging against what she sees as his unfair treatment, but more often sharing memories of him, addressing him like he’s still there.

“I miss calling him monkey,” she wrote recently. “Miguel, thank you for loving me and making such a positive impact. We will always love and miss you, papi.”



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