This Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the death of eight Fort Hood soldiers and one U.S. Military Academy at West Point cadet in a military vehicle rollover accident during a flash flood at a low-water crossing on Owl Creek.
Since August 2016, the Herald has been seeking copies of the unit and Army reports on the investigation. Fort Hood has not made the unit investigation report, known as an Army Regulation 15-6, available to the public, but a copy was provided in January 2017 to the Herald by the widow of Staff Sgt. Miguel Angel Colonvazquez, Ngo T. Pham.
The Herald first requested the report in November 2016, when it was expected to be completed, and asked eight additional times after that. The Herald also asked why it hadn’t received the report. The Herald asked why again Thursday, before the long holiday weekend, but the Freedom of Information Act manager at Fort Hood couldn’t be reached, as was the case with previous inquiries.
New information received Friday from survivor Kameron Robinson, who is no longer in the Army, casts doubt on the unit report finding fault with Colonvazquez. Robinson told the Herald soldiers raised concerns about severe weather to Colonvazquez, who went to talk to the platoon leader about it. When Colonvazquez returned, he told the soldiers the training had to continue.
In the unit report received by Pham, the investigation blamed the accident on a series of three successive decisions made by Colonvazquez. He was a combat veteran who also died during the accident.
The first decision was to lead the convoy off the paved road onto the tank trail. The second was to continue along the tank trail even after crossing two large pools. The third decision was to try crossing Owl Creek at the low-water crossing point instead of using the nearby bridge. The use of the bridge, the investigation emphasized, “would have prevented the accident.”
The report also recommended that three leaders associated with the unit receive a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand for negligence of duties. Those leaders, whose names were blacked out in the report, were not with the convoy when the accident occurred because it was considered “Sergeant’s Time Training,” a chance for senior sergeants to do practical, hands-on training with junior enlisted soldiers.
Pham insisted that her husband had argued to terminate the day’s training. However, the training continued despite heavy rains and flash-flood warnings.
The unit investigation cited three leaders for not doing more ahead of time to reduce the risks to the patrol, considering the weather conditions and the inexperience of the young soldiers. The leaders’ names had been redacted.
Pham fully disputes the unit’s finding that her husband was at fault.
The unit report was one of two official investigations. The other was conducted by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, which is in charge of all official Army accident investigations, especially those resulting in the death of a soldier.
The Army’s investigation was released Aug. 18, 2017, in response to a 2016 Freedom of Information Act request by the Herald and more than a year after the nine died in training. Because it was heavily redacted, it is unclear whether the Army report concurred with the unit investigation.
In the Army report, all information concerning the cause of the accident or who could be to blame — all findings and recommendations — was blacked out. The report provided a timeline of events, witness statements and information about the vehicle.
Entire sections of the report were redacted, to include nearly 14 pages under the label “rationale for conclusion of analysis.” All five findings and five sets of recommendations were also covered over. The recommendations went to many levels of the Army — from the unit level at 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, to the U.S. Forces Command, which oversees III Corps and Fort Hood.
The day the report was released, the Herald sent a letter to Brig. Gen. David J. Francis, the Combat Readiness Center’s commander, requesting an appeal of his decision to redact important information from the report. That request was forwarded to the Office of the Army General Counsel at the Pentagon, which adjudicates those appeals, on Aug. 21, 2017.
However, it could take until April 2019 to process the request, the Army says.
Luke Moyer, assistant to the General Counsel, said in an April 16 email, that the office processes appeals for the entire Army and works on them in the order received.
“Your appeal is currently 61st in our regular queue, meaning we must respond to 60 other regular appeals before reaching your case,” Moyer said in the email. “I sincerely regret our delay. Please understand, however, that this office processes FOIA appeals for the entire Army.”
Moyer added that his office is currently working on appeals made in late 2016, so it could take up to a year before a response is available on whether the Army will unredact the pertinent information in the report.
Herald staff reached out to Fort Hood and Fort Rucker after the release of the Army investigation for comments about the report’s redactions. A Fort Hood spokesman deferred all inquiries about the report to Fort Rucker. A spokesman for Fort Rucker declined to comment.
Herald correspondent Jason Douglas contributed to this report.