By Lauren Sage Reinlie, Daily NewsOctober 3, 2012
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (Oct. 4, 2012) -- On the bank of a slough winding off the Yellow River, Army Ranger instructors took a moment Wednesday to remember one of the worst training accidents in the group's history.
On Feb. 16, 1995, four young men training to become a part of the elite military force died of hypothermia after a river rose rapidly and flooded a swamp they were training in during a mission.
A modest wooden cross marks the spot where on that day, as the sun began to set, 80 to 100 men climbed out of their rubber rowboats with the slushy swamp water lapping at their ankles.
It wasn't long before the water rose to their thighs, waists, chests and then their necks. Soon they were swimming tree to tree in the dark, searching in vain for higher ground.
Three men died in the water. Another died later at the hospital.
"We come here every year, because this is something we don't ever want to happen again," said Lt. Col. Michael Acord, commander of the 6th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp James Rudder. "As you get farther away from the accident your memory starts to fade. You've got to do things like this periodically to remember."
The instructors attended courses in the morning to refresh them on safety procedures that have been put in place since the accident. Then about 60 men climbed into Zodiak boats to make a similar trek down the river as instructor and students made in 1995.
Thousands of men come to Camp Rudder each year to spend days training in the sprawling woods and swamps to become Rangers.
In 1995, the platoon was several days into training when students set out on the water. They had developed a reputation for lacking teamwork and discipline, and as the situation quickly became treacherous that lapse of cohesion came through.
The river began to flood unexpectedly, and instructors had to find an alternative spot to disembark and make their way through the swamp to higher ground.
Dan Matuozzi, a now-civilian training instructor for the battalion, was a Ranger instructor with C Company at the time of the accident. He remembers how rapidly danger set in.
"We knew quickly that we needed to (leave)," he said as he stood on the bank near where they had disembarked more than 17 years ago. "We thought we've got to move on, push forward, and the water will eventually get shallower."
But, it didn't.
Because the river was flooding, the water actually got deeper as the men moved farther into the swamp.
The men dropped all their equipment in the water. Matuozzi remembers holding on to trees to fight against a current that was flowing as strong as in the river.
Matuozzi's company made it out of the water first. B Company, following behind and about 100 meters to the east, was in more danger, he said.
Most of the men did not want to move at all. They had leg cramps and were growing extremely cold as the sun set. Rangers said instructors were literally beating the students toward higher ground.
Second Lt. Curt Sansoucie and 2nd Lt. Spencer Dodge succumbed to hypothermia first.
The last man to see Dodge alive left him behind. His body was found the next morning about 75 meters from high ground. He had tried to crawl out.
Sgt. Norman Tillman started thrashing in the water before he succumbed to hypothermia. During the struggle, he knocked a radio into the water and the group lost communication.
The men began to splinter off in the dark.
"That's a big no-no," Matuozzi said. "Never break up your platoon."
He said as soon as some instructors made it out, they immediately went back in to try to get everyone to safety.
Four of them carried Capt. Milton Palmer out on a stretcher with a medic on top performing CPR. He died later at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.
Matuozzi said he's seen a lot in combat and training over the years, but the incident on the Yellow River stands out. He has visited the memorial every year since 1997.
"It's one of those things you don't forget," he said.
The Rangers describe a series of miscalculations and environmental factors that led to the disaster, including the decision to go ahead with the training even though the river had risen almost 18 inches since the previous day.
"It's humbling," Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Elder said, after leaving the memorial site to return to Camp Rudder's headquarters. "It shows that no one really big mistake was made, but a series of small ones became catastrophic. Everybody needs to know what your small piece is and how that can affect everything else."
During the ceremony, leaders also focused on the importance of a group's ability to work and stay together, something the instructors try hard to instill in their students.
"They started thinking of themselves and not as a platoon," Elder said.
Acord said that can be one of the most challenging aspects of training new Rangers. He said he's seen men quit, walk off, fall down or start crying.
"You get to a certain point when you are broken down so much it takes everything to keep going," he said. "When the chips go down, when they're in danger, the ones who stay together survive. We need to train them how to maintain morale and cohesion despite the circumstances. That's what keeps people alive in combat."
At the ceremony the instructors placed new markers on the worn cross. The printed names of the victims had faded with time, but the solemnity of the events was fresh in instructors' minds as Chaplain (Capt.) Kevin Murcher led them in prayer.
"We are tasked with taking men to the breaking point," he said. "But not to break them."