Reunion gives some Soldiers closure
October 27, 2009
By Jeff Crawley
He and his fellow trainees in A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 80th Field Artillery, were in their seventh week of training and had just eight days left. Morale was high as training was winding down.
All of that changed when an overcharged, errant artillery round fired from a distant training area struck the battery Sept. 27, 1989.
McCain and two other trainees were killed and a drill sergeant later died from his injuries. Another two dozen Soldiers were injured.
After 20 years, Soldiers from the battery, family, friends and Fort Sill leaders, gathered Sept. 28, at the site of the accident for a remembrance ceremony.
"It's still unbelievable," said Jim McCain, Jimmy's father, referring to the accident. "We remember it every day."
McCain, who is retired school teacher, and his wife, Mavis, along with family members made the 13-hour drive from Waynesboro, Miss. They were joined by another dozen people from across America, who had been touched by the tragedy.
Chaplain (Maj.) Jimmy Ward began the ceremony with a prayer.
These families are gathered to remember the potential of the lives of the Soldiers as well as "to remember the moment that we will immortalize forever," said Ward, of the 95th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception), 434th Field Artillery Brigade.
Turning leaves rustled in the trees in the cool, breezy morning as the names of the victims were read: Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Scottie Harris, Rockmart, Ga.; Pvt. Edward Zastrow, 18, Lester Prairie, Minn.; Spc. Thomas Boyle, 25, Ventura, Calif.; and McCain.
Col. Richard Bowyer, commander of the 434th FA, welcomed the visitors during the half-hour ceremony.
"On that fateful day in September 1989, families and friends, our Army and our nation, lost precious treasures," Bowyer said. "Our sons and daughters, who serve our nation, are precious whether they serve 24 hours or 24 years."
The attendees were then invited to speak including original battery member Charles McCrossen.
McCrossen said it seemed like yesterday that they were young and full of life.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about each and every one of them," said McCrossen, his voice breaking. "I know all four of them are somewhere looking down smiling today."
<b>Sept. 27, 1989</b>
It had been typical day in basic combat training: first, physical training then breakfast. Because it was a range day, the Soldiers of A Battery spent the day firing rifles at the Squad, Platoon, Offensive Tactics Course on Fort Sill's West Range, said Rodney Peeples, who had just turned 18 years-old as a private in the battery.
Drill sergeants had also been detonating simulated explosives throughout the afternoon. The privates hit the dirt whenever one of the instructors yelled, "Incoming!" and they would stay on the ground for 15 seconds afterward all part of training.
Peeples, who is now a postal clerk in Austin, Texas, was at the water buffalo filling his canteen talking to other Soldiers at about 4 p.m.
"Incoming, incoming," someone shouted, Peeples said.
"We heard this unforgettable whistle, we heard trees cracking and saw this dark shadow," he said. "Next thing you know 'Boom!' impact."
The round landed 10 meters from about 50 to 70 Soldiers, who were forming up to go to evening chow, said Ron Findlay, a battery member.
"It was the worst possible time," Findlay said. "Had it been a few minutes prior or even after, that battery would have been over by the bleachers or marched over to the trucks," he said, pointing to distant areas.
There was smoke and screaming and the Soldiers quickly realized this was not part of the training.
"It was like a Vietnam movie in basic training," said Peeples, who would later fight in the first Gulf War.
<b>The victims </b>
Peeples was a friend of one of the victims, Boyle, a trainee who had prior military service. Peeples recalled Boyles as a take-charge Soldier.
"He was a leader, he was 24 or 25, he'd keep us calm and keep our heads steady," Peeples said. "He was a standup Soldier."
Peeples also fondly recalled Harris.
"He was from Georgia, my grandparents were from Georgia, so he was from the same neighborhood as we were," said Peeples, who like many of the reunited veterans had physical scars from the accident.
Don Stranathan, was also a private in the battery, and is now a captain and field artillery battery commander in the Ohio Army National Guard.
Stranathan remembered Harris as the least intimidating of the drill sergeants.
"He was very approachable and soft spoken at times," said Stranathan, who works as a federal probation officer in Kent, Ohio.
He remembered Zastrow, who had turned 18 just 10 days earlier, as a quiet Soldier.
"He was a good guy from what I remember," Stranathan said.
Immediately after the accident, the drill sergeants rallied the survivors, Peeples said.
"Put the tourniquets on, get down with that Soldier, cover that wound," the drill sergeants instructed, Peeples said. "They did a real good job of getting us back to focus."
At the time of the accident, there was a medical unit training with UH-1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopters at nearby Camp Eagle, also on the West Range, Findlay said.
"Within moments, they (Hueys) were here landing," said Findlay, snapping his fingers. "People just started showing up."
One of those was a chaplain, who pointed out to Findlay that he had a lump the size of a softball on his head. Unbeknownst to Findlay, a piece of shrapnel had hit him in the temple.
Stranathan's battle buddy and fellow Buckeye State Soldier, then-Pvt. McCrossen had been given his last rites at Brooks Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
McCrossen would spend the next five months convalescing from leg injuries at BAMC. Then he returned to Fort Sill for two months of physical therapy.
McCrossen, who today runs a machine shop in Cincinnati, organized the remembrance.
"That day has pretty much haunted me for 20 years," he said.
McCrossen found an Internet forum about the accident by Soldiers from A, 2-80. About a year-and-half ago he began thinking about a reunion.
"I thought it was time we all got together and maybe put some of our memories to rest," he said.
Russell Slate, a battery member and now a graphic artist for the Fox-TV affiliate in Bountiful, Utah, said he heard about the reunion two weeks before the event. He drove to Fort Sill with his wife, Darcie. Like many of the participants, it was Slate's first time back to Fort Sill since the accident.
Findlay said he came to the remembrance to see his former battery and to find out what his nightmares were all about.
"I didn't remember a lot of this until today," said Findlay, who drives for United Parcel Service in Philadelphia. "I blocked it out for whatever reason."
Stranathan said, he had spoken only to McCrossen about the accident and that attending the ceremony brought closure for him.
"It was more emotional for me than I had anticipated," he said.
After the accident, basic combat training immediately ended for the Soldiers of A, 2-80, Findlay said.
"It was very somber. The drill sergeants and the command treated us like we permanent party," he said. "There was no more yelling; it was just 'hey.'"
Everyone graduated on time <m> some from hospital beds. The ambulatory survivors participated in an outdoor ceremony near the Quarry Hill Chapel, said Findlay, who recently retired from a combined active-duty and Army Reserve career.
After the accident, Findlay and some of the other injured Soldiers were offered retirement for medical reasons.
"Hell, no. Are you crazy'," Findlay told the authorities. "I didn't put up with all these weeks just to go home!"
The reunited Soldiers and their families toured Fort Sill, including eating lunch at the Lesh Hall Dining Facility. They also visited their old barracks in Building 6010.
"Everything looks the same, but smaller for some reason," said Daniel Larks, a real estate broker in Atwater, Calif. Larks enlisted when he was 16 and had just turned 17 before the accident. He would go on to serve eight years active duty and reserve.
McCain said that he had come to Fort Sill about 10 years ago and informally visited the accident site.
He said that he believed he and his family had to come to the remembrance ceremony.
"We are so proud that they decided to did this ceremony," he said.