Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the death of eight Fort Hood soldiers and a West Point cadet when their military vehicle rolled over during a flash flood on Owl Creek.
Ngo T. Pham, the widow of Staff Sgt. Miguel Angel Colonvazquez, whom Army investigators eventually assessed primary blame for the accident, still mourns her husband, has lingering questions and plans to honor her husband’s memory on the anniversary.
“I will buy him flowers and burn incense for him. It’s a Vietnamese tradition that we do for our loved ones who have passed away,” Pham said. “I will be on Facebook looking at his soldiers’ posts and honoring them. There will be tears, and I hope that I won’t be glued to my bed, and that my post-traumatic stress won’t take over.”
Pham said even though it’s been two years since the tragic accident, it’s as if it happened yesterday.
“The memories and pain are always there,” Pham said. “It is tainted by the memory of the Army’s negligence in not only my husband and his eight soldiers’ lives but those who have served and are currently serving.”
She still is adjusting to being a single parent and caring for herself and her three daughters.
“There are many adjustments that I had to make. Mentally, I must battle with depression, anxiety, and flashbacks,” said Pham, who had been texting her husband: Where are you, on the morning June 2, 2016. “I have to be mentally prepared every day in case the kids talk about him or ask about what happened to them. I play both roles now as a parent.”
It’s been especially hard on the children, Pham said.
“They lost their Dad, the one man that had always been there for them,” Pham said. “He taught them everything they need to survive. He was their strength and now he’s gone. They miss him and talk about him every day, play his favorite songs and watch his favorite movies. It’s a way for them to keep his memories alive.”
Pham said due to anxiety, she only works weekends, if she has a babysitter. She’s also currently studying to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychotherapy, something she felt compelled to do after her husband’s death.
“My career goal is to be able to help our veterans and their families through psychotherapy,” Pham said. “My specialized area will probably be in grief counseling. I believe that one of the ways I can honor my husband and fallen soldiers is to give back to our military families.”
Pham said aside from the unit 15-6 investigation results she was briefed on last year, she hasn’t heard or seen anything else from the Army. She has since moved out of state. The 15-6 was the unit's investigation report. The Army's report came out months later with heavy redactions.
Pham said she has lingering questions about the accident.
“The main questions I want an answer to are: Why did the investigating officer fail to interview the survivors? Why was my request for an unredacted investigation report denied? Why did the platoon leader get promoted and why did the Army put other soldiers’ lives at risk? Why was my husband, and his soldiers, ordered to perform training in such bad weather conditions?”
Pham is referring to the investigation that was done by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker. The Herald separately had requested an unredacted copy of that report. The Army said it would be more than a year before it could consider the Herald’s request.
The Army has declined the Herald’s past requests to comment on the accident saying it’s a personnel matter.
Pham said she doesn’t believe the training that day was necessary in severe weather. She said if a tornado warning had been issued, the soldiers would have been indoors, so a flash flood warning should have been heeded the same way.
She also questions why more leaders higher in the chain of command weren’t reprimanded in the accident and why the Army blamed the platoon sergeant, who was home on military leave when the accident occurred.
Pham said she barely has contact with the other families affected since the first investigation blamed the accident on her husband.
“I do not blame them because there was a time in my life where I thought the whole military was very black and white and the whole institution had morals and principles,” Pham said. “The survivors and I keep in contact. I try not to reach out often because I am afraid that it would trigger certain emotions.”
One of the soldier’s family members who doesn’t assign blame to Colonvazquez is San Angelo resident Ricky DeLeon, father of Pvt. Isaac Lee DeLeon, who was killed in the accident. Ricky DeLeon and his wife Christina and two children, came to Killeen last year to visit the site of the rollover. DeLeon and his wife are returning this year.
“We’re going to go put flowers at the accident site and meet up with two of the survivors if they will be there,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon said his wife maintains contact with Pham and the family of Spc. Christine Armstrong, another soldier who died during the accident.
“I don’t blame her (Pham’s) husband, I blame the upper leadership,” DeLeon said. “I think he was just following orders.”
DeLeon said he felt the investigation was scripted and made to fit to place the blame on Colonvazquez.
“As far as I understand it, they didn’t do a risk assessment and didn’t follow protocol at all,” DeLeon said.
Pham said the soldiers from her husband’s unit reach out to check on her from time to time through social media.
“Seeing them move forward in life in such a positive way brings me joy,” Pham said. “I know my husband is looking down on them and feels very proud because he always wanted those whom he cared for to do well in life.”
Pham said having some families distance themselves from her was a big blow.
“I feel extremely devastated,” Pham said. Pham and her husband had hosted the soldiers at their home on many occasions.
“Due to the Army’s negligence, we all lost our loved ones and not being able to come together to fight for the truth or to even be able to comfort each other is like pouring salt on a wound.”
Pham said she knows the truth won’t bring her husband and his soldiers back, but the goal is to clear her husband’s name.
“I know in my heart that my husband and his soldiers should have never been out there in the first place, he was a great noncommissioned officer and dedicated to the Army and should be remembered as such,” Pham said.
“It is time for the Army to take responsibility for their failures,” Pham said. “There is a group of Gold Star families that are in the same situation as I am in. They have never received the truth about what happened to their soldiers who died while on active duty, or the Army results as to how their loved ones died does not match up with the autopsy report. We all deserve to know what really happened to our soldiers.”