A U.S. service member has been killed in action in Afghanistan, the second American to die while supporting operations in the country in January 2019.
Officials with Operation Resolute Support announced Jan. 22, 2019, that the death of the service member, whose service branch was not identified, is under investigation.
It’s not clear where the service member was killed. Defense Department policy is not to release the names of those who died supporting combat operations until 24 hours after next-of-kin is notified.
This most recent death comes five days after Army Sgt. Sgt. Cameron Meddock, of the 75th Ranger Regiment, died from combat wounds at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Jan. 17, 2019. Meddock was shot during combat operations in Badghis province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 13, 2019.
Sgt. Cameron A. Meddock, 26, of Spearman, Texas.
(U.S. Army Special Operations Command)
Earlier January 2019, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer and Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent were killed, along with an American DoD contractor and civilian worker, in a bombing in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Three other American troops were wounded in the bombing.
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is reportedly looking into allegations that a company which runs military housing at one of California’s largest bases is scamming its residents out of money they don’t owe.
Lincoln Military Housing has reportedly been trying to get military residents to pay hundreds of dollars more than they owe for energy bills, according to statements from families obtained by We Are the Mighty. And if the residents don’t pay up, the Lincoln Military Housing’s San Onofre district office allegedly threatens to have the service members and their families evicted, these families claim.
The exact number of families who have received these eviction notices is unknown, though WATM spoke with multiple military spouses and service members who had been notified by their commands that Lincoln was ordering them out of their homes just before the Christmas holidays.
The residents, all of whom claim they are paid up on rent, all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the housing office in question.
According to one couple who spoke to WATM, an eviction notice was sent to them in early December in response to an article that appeared on the website USMC Life, which is run by military spouse Kristine Schellhaas.
“This program has been hurting our military families since its inception,” Schellhaas told WATM in a statement. “Our families should be able to live on base without the financial burden and threat of eviction from poorly executed billing.”
Schellhaas wrote about the couple on her site in December, calling for the housing office to look into its exorbitant energy bills over the previous two months. Though Schellhaas declined to use their real names, the couple had posted about their frustrations in a Facebook neighborhood group page after being threatened with eviction.
Schellhaas indicated that NCIS was investigating the allegations. When reached for comment, NCIS said it was “unable to comment on an ongoing investigation.”
The residents of the San Onofre II district aboard Camp Pendleton claim that, until roughly two months prior, their bills had been at or below the grace period, meaning they were not billed for utilities.
According to documents obtained by WATM, the residents all saw extreme hikes that had nothing to do with increased power usage.
Lincoln Military Housing declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on these allegations.
Lincoln Military Housing takes part in a program where, if residents manage to conserve energy, they can receive money back from the housing office. If they go over the allotted amount, they pay extra.
The energy bills are managed by a company called Yes Energy Management. The premise behind the company is simple — they are essentially a paid middleman for the middleman. Basically, Lincoln Military Housing — who is contracted by the Department of Defense to manage the housing on some military installations — pays Yes Energy Management to send an electric bill to the base residents.
Rather than having the actual electric company send the bill directly to the residents, both Lincoln Military Housing and Yes Energy Management oversee these bills privately — effectively eliminating any contact between the resident and the electric company.
Each of the homes is fitted with a third party Yes Energy meter that the company uses to determine how much electricity has been used.
The way the system works is that each neighborhood gets their energy usages during a trial period combined and an average is determined by Yes Energy. Those who are above that average get penalized. Those who are below it get rewarded.
Once the residents pay their bills every month, Yes Energy pays the actual energy company, takes its fee from the remainder, and sends what’s left back to Lincoln Military Housing, according to residents.
One of the problems, according to the residents of San Onofre II, is that the neighborhoods they live in weren’t built to have their energy usage measured individually. The residents say that an unnamed employee at their housing office explained that things like Camp Pendleton street lights are wired into their houses, which means that the residents are responsible for paying much more than just their own electric bill.
One resident told We Are the Mighty, “It’s just me and my husband, so when we received the outrageous bills we said something about it and come to find out, our house was hooked up to several street lights.”
Other residents allege that, in addition to paying for the streetlights, empty houses around them drive their monthly usage allotments down. Because there are no residents in those homes, according to neighbors, there is no usage – severely impacting the average usage in that community.
That isn’t a hard thing to imagine, considering Yes Energy has this on its website:
Neither of these theories exactly explain why an entire group of residents suddenly saw a significant increase in their bills despite not having changed anything in their homes, residents say.
Several residents say they questioned their bills, first going directly to Yes Energy; they claim that Yes Energy told them that the issue was not with them or the energy provider and that they should be speaking with the housing office regarding the way the communities were built.
These same residents allege that they then took their concerns to base housing, where it took months for just a handful of them to receive any type of response. Those that were fortunate enough to get a response also received messages that hinted Yes Energy was to blame for the outrageous bills.
Chelsea Levin, a service coordinator for Lincoln’s San Onofre Housing office, wrote in an email to a resident dated Dec. 7, “I am e-mailing as a follow up regarding the issues you have been having in the home with the Yes Energy account. I wanted to let you know that we are now waiting on the utility company to make the changes.”
The email is in response to a phone call placed to the housing office in September, according to the resident who provided the original email.
So where does that leave the residents?
Right where they were, for now.
The resident who originally spoke with Schellhaas alleges that they were served an eviction notice the day after Schellhaas’s post went live. According to that resident and the resident’s active duty spouse, the housing office contacted the service member’s command to deliver the notice.
In a Facebook post, the resident said that Lincoln cited the resident’s use of salty language in a phone call with the office as the reason they were being evicted.
The resident claimed that the office gave that reason directly to the service member’s command.
“They’re saying I was verbally abusive,” the resident wrote.
When We Are the Mighty reached out to the couple, the resident responded, “I feel as if the housing office saw the article that was posted in USMCLife and that is what caused them to call this morning as well as tell us we were being evicted.”
Other residents who spoke with us cited a fear of retaliation after it became public information that the original residents in Schellhaas’s story were being evicted. One resident wrote: “If you wouldn’t mind, could you please not mention our names or resident IDs? He’s a Marine.”
And another resident wrote to us regarding her husband’s concern about her speaking with us, “He’s terrified we will get evicted. I kept trying to reassure him, but the longer I was looking [at our bill] the more he started to freak out. … He says he’d rather get screwed than be homeless.”
Recently, Schellhaas was tasked with updating Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford’s wife Ellyn on “hot-button” issues facing the military community.
In preparation for that meeting, she collected energy data from 17 base homes and four off base homes. What she found was that base residents were charged nearly 45 percent more for comparable energy usage off base. An entire breakdown of her findings can be reviewed here.
Schellhaas issued this statement to We Are the Mighty in regards to the entire energy program:
“I believe there hasn’t been enough due diligence in its implementation and no one authority has demonstrated that the organizations can be made accountable for their actions,” she said. “Privatized housing blames Yes Energy and vice-versa, meanwhile our families are suffering.”
The ARA San Juan, with 44 crew members on board, disappeared on Nov. 15, about 270 miles off the southern tip of South America.
NASA has been trying to help find the 216-foot sub from the sky. And now the U.S. Navy is sending support to locate and rescue the ship from the sea.
The U.S. Southern Command said Nov. 19 it’s sending a Submarine Rescue Chamber, designed during WWII, which can reach a submarine submerged up to 850 feet, and bring up to six people at a time back to the surface. A Pressurized Rescue Module, which can rescue up to 16 people at a time, and a Remotely Operated Vehicle are also on their way.
On Nov. 18, the missing crewmembers tried to make seven satellite calls, Argentine defense minister Oscar Aguad said. But stormy weather in the southern Atlantic likely blocked the calls from going through.
Argentine navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said the crew should have enough food and water aboard, in order to wait out the choppy seas and 20-foot waves until they are found, according to Reuters.
The working theory is that an electrical outage knocked out the ship’s communications. Submarines are supposed to surface if that happens.
Everyone’s job plays a role in the grand scheme of things. Everyone is just one piece in the puzzle few of us get to look at.
5. Learn how to wear your gear properly
This is one that will undoubtedly gain some respect from grunts. One common complaint among the grunts is that POGs have no idea how to wear the gear. Magazine pouches don’t go on the back of your plate carrier, and get that first aid kit in a place where you can reach it.
4. Learn basic infantry tactics
This one almost goes without saying — learn the basics of a grunt’s job and they’ll have no room to talk sh*t.
3. Set yourself to grunt standards
Infantrymen have to be physically fit in order to handle carrying all their gear, and someone else if the need arises. If you can keep up with a grunt or even outperform a few, they’ll treat you like one of their own — especially if you take the advice from point #4.
2. Don’t act like your rank gives you experience
The infantry, especially the Marine Corps infantry, is full of E-3s with TONS of experience. One thing that will piss a grunt off more than anything is if an E-4 who only has 6 months to a year of time in tries to act superior to an E-3 with 2 or 3 years of experience (demotions exempt) and deployments under their belt.
Grunts talk trash all day, every day, and there is not a single day that goes by in the infantry where they don’t. If you can sh*t talk with a grunt (and if you can do it better) they’ll undoubtedly accept you as one of their own. But make sure you have more in your arsenal than, “Well, you’re just a dumb grunt.”
That one’s been used so many times that people with ASVAB scores of 80 and higher are joining the infantry.
*Bonus* Take pride in being a POG
Grunts feel that POGs often just have an inferiority complex, which results in treating grunts like low-life scum (which isn’t totally wrong). Take pride in the fact that you help grunts bring the fight to the enemy! Grunts actually love cooks and motor-T because otherwise they’re stuck with MREs and long walks.
College pranks leading up to a rivalry football game are par for the course, an expected ordinary event. But when Army meets Navy every year, the pranks are pulled by individuals trained to plan, lead, and meticulously execute military operations – and there is nothing ordinary about the students who attend the United States Military Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy.
This is especially true of one of Navy’s most famous alums, H. Ross Perot tolled Army in one of the greatest pranks in academy history.
There was nothing ordinary about Ross Perot.
Perot died of leukemia in 2019 at age 89 but the self-made billionaire and businessman who may have changed the outcome of the 1992 election got his start at the Naval Academy, graduating with the Class of 1953. His prank, however, came before the 1975 Army-Navy Game, when Perot was not only out of the Navy, but already a billionaire. His company, Electronic Data Systems, had gone public seven years prior.
His billions might have been the key element in helping Perot troll – or rather toll – the entire West Point campus on the eve of the biggest game of the season. According to the 1989 book “The Long Gray Line” by Rick Atkinson, Perot had to somehow enlist the help of a West Point chaplain to even get started.
Money. Money is how he enlisted an inside man.
At zero dark thirty on the night before the 1975 Army-Navy Game, Perot, with the help of an Army chaplain, the U.S. Military Academy’s bell-ringer, and a Midshipman friend infiltrated the West Point campus and shattered the quiet of the Hudson Valley night.
They scaled the stairs of the West Point Chapel, locked the doors behind them and played “Anchors Aweigh” (Navy’s fight song, for the uninitiated) while singing at the top of their lungs. As barracks’ lights all over campus switched on and cadets flooded their ways to the chapel, Perot and company banged out the Marines’ Hymn on the bells as a follow-up.
Perot taunted the oncoming cadets before surrendering to the mob, who promptly handed the eccentric billionaire over to the waiting Military Police. Perot presumably accepted a slap on the wrist and Navy bested Army 30-6.
The US Navy has its first Black female tactical fighter pilot in its history, according to a Thursday tweet from the Chief of Naval Air Training announcing Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle will receive her “wings of gold” later in July.
“BZ to Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle on completing the Tactical Air (Strike) aviator syllabus,” read the tweet. “Swegle is the @USNavy’s first known Black female TACAIR pilot and will receive her Wings of Gold later this month. HOOYAH!”
Swegle is a native of Burke, Virginia, and graduated from the US Naval Academy in 2017, Stars and Stripes first reported. She is assigned to the Redhawks of Training Squadron 21 in Kingsville, Texas, according to the report.
Swegle will earn her wings at a ceremony on July 31, The Navy Times reported. The US Navy shared the news, tweeting “MAKING HISTORY!”
The US Department of State issued a level-four travel warning for Venezuela on March 14, 2019, to tell Americans “do not travel” to the chaos-stricken country, and that all Americans in the country should leave. It’s the highest travel warning that the department issues.
The advisory pointed to “crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens.”
The announcement aligns with a top-level warning that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in May 2018. That warning said outbreaks of measles, malaria, diphtheria, and other infectious diseases are contributing to “an increasing humanitarian crisis affecting much of the country.”
The Department of State noted on March 14, 2019, that, throughout Venezuela, “there are shortages of food, water, electricity, medicine, and medical supplies.”
(Flickr photo by Anyul Rivas)
Political rallies and demonstrations occur with little notice, the warning said. And these rallies attract a strong police response with “tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and rubber bullets against participants and occasionally devolve into looting and vandalism.”
“Security forces have arbitrarily detained US citizens for long periods,” the warning said. “The US Department of State may not be notified of the detention of a US citizen, and consular access to detainees may be denied or severely delayed.”
After this warning was issued, American Airlines announced on March 15, 2019, that they would suspend flights into Caracas and Maracaibo. “Our corporate security team has a collaborative partnership with all of our union leaders and we will continue to do so to evaluate the situation in Venezuela,” the airline said in a statement.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Just a few years ago, I was a diplomat working on the Turkish-Syrian border. My job was managing the U.S. government team responsible for delivering aid to Syrian towns and cities loyal to the Syrian opposition.
These were towns that had turned against President Bashar al-Assad when the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and Assad ordered his army to shoot peaceful civilians protesting against him.
Now I’m retired from the Foreign Service and teaching international relations at the University of Washington in Seattle, where my students struggle to understand why the U.S. never seems to learn from past mistakes in the conduct of our foreign affairs.
With much of the civil service gone, local services like water and electricity fell apart and essential public employees fled. That left a perfect vacuum for extremist groups like IS to exploit by taking control of essentially ungoverned territory. The U.S. continues to pay the price for this avoidable decision today.
If the U.S. cuts off support for communities inside Syria that oppose Bashar al-Assad and fly the Syrian Opposition flag, and withdraws American troops from the fight against IS – as President Trump has announced – we will be making the same mistake again. We’ll be creating a vacuum our enemies can exploit.
Syrian refugees will never go back home if their towns can’t offer the basic services they enjoyed before the war.
Our simple strategy was that when peace returns to Syria, key local officials would still be on the job, ready to reconnect their communities to the national systems that provided services before the war.
Thus would begin the long, difficult process of reuniting Syria.
The money and supplies my team and I delivered helped keep important local officials on the job so they wouldn’t give up and flee their country to seek refuge in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, like millions of others before them. These were experienced civilians who could keep the water and power on, manage the sewers and clean the streets.
We helped them with small stipends – a portion of their former salary – because the Syrian government had stopped paying them. And we provided equipment they needed to do their jobs: garbage trucks, generators, water tanks and fire trucks. We helped teachers, doctors and local police with small stipends, supplies and equipment, too.
Nothing was more satisfying for me than seeing videos of a new garbage truck that we sent from Turkey removing piles of garbage from the streets of Saraqib or one of the new ambulances we provided tending to innocent civilians injured in the latest barrel bombing in Aleppo.
International aid paid for the rehabilitation of an unreliable electricity grid in a town near Aleppo, Syria in 2015.
It’s in everyone’s interest to keep civil service workers on the job, paid something and equipped. That will help put Syria back together again someday and deny ungoverned space for IS and other extremist groups. The last thing the U.S. and countries in the region need is for Syria to disintegrate into warring regions, like Iraq and Libya today.
Other countries joined the effort to rebuild Syria, notably the U.K., the Netherlands and Denmark. Still more countries are contributing to an international fund based in Jordan that helps the same communities; my team cooperated closely with this effort.
Stopping this funding means jeopardizing Syria’s future at the worst possible time, just as the conflict appears to be coming to an end. I believe that reuniting the country should be the priority now.
Of course, the Syrian government and its supporters, Russia and Iran, opposed our aid. The assistance we gave sustained communities that the government and its allies continue to bomb into submission and surrender, particularly in Idlib province.
Similarly, withdrawing U.S. troops sent to Syria to eliminate IS – when our own count suggests at least 1,000 IS fighters remain there – may serve short term political ends, but will likely come back to haunt the U.S. and Syria’s neighbors.
President Trump may worry about the price tag for rebuilding Syria, once the war ends. He is right to be concerned. The cost will be enormous and arguably the U.S. should not spend a dime.
The old adage – you broke it, you fix it – applies to the Syria conflict. I believe we should let Syria, Russia and Iran pay the billions it will take to fix what they broke – the infrastructure of bombed-out cities and towns.
The modest U.S. investment in local communities that the White House cut off – 0 million, not billions – could have helped prevent the collapse of communities in the future.
So, what do I tell my students in Seattle?
I remind them that they are our future leaders. I tell them that if we are not to repeat the mistakes of my generation, they should study and learn from history, and avoid short-term fixes to disentangle the U.S. from future foreign interventions.
“Silver bullets” don’t work – and usually force us to return later, at a greater cost.
By the time the physical training session finished in the late afternoon, another five followed.
One day into the first week of Engineer Diver Phase I course, a class of 12 has dwindled to two: the first, a soldier who had already passed the course two years ago. He left the Army and worked his way back. The other: a soldier who struggled swimming the endurance laps necessary to be a deep-sea diver but passed other aspects of the course, including the classroom lessons and physical training exercises.
The cuts come swiftly. Some quit out of their own accord. Others simply did not meet the rigid standards of the course. The Army designed it this way; to weed out the weak-minded, weak-willed and those unable to remain calm during extended hours underwater. In maritime conditions, Army divers must be prepared to act in seconds; they must react to sudden changes in currents, waves and the elements.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Holdner pours water on students as they attempt to complete flutter kicks. The water simulates the sensations of drowning. The exercise tests students’ ability to perform under extreme duress.
(Photo Credit: Joe Lacdan)
More than 90 percent of students won’t advance past the school’s first phase at Fort Leonard Wood. Among those who didn’t make the first week: recruits who had years of competitive swimming experience and former high school athletes.
The instructors know oceans, rivers and lakes can be a brutally cold, unforgiving places.
They attempt to make the course as unforgiving. At Davidson Fitness Center’s 25-meter pool, divers face two crucial initiation tests. Holdner said the majority of students don’t make it past these two exercises.
The first, students must swim the width of the pool in a single breath — underwater. Then the new recruits jump off a high dive board, surface, and swim to the far side of the pool and back and tread water for 40 minutes.
Pfc. Nolan Hurrish, right, emerges from the pool with other students during an Army engineer diving training exercise at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
(Photo Credit: Joe Lacdan)
During the first half, students keep their heads out of water while using their hands and feet. During the second 20 minutes, they perform the “dead man’s float” — a survival technique where soldiers bend at the waist facing the water with arms out while holding their breath, simulating a floating corpse. When they need to breathe, they collapse arms and legs at the same time to raise their head above the water before dipping their faces back in the water.
In the second test, soldiers must swim 500 yards in 12 minutes and 30 seconds using breast stroke or side stroke, then do 50 pushups, 50 curl ups and six pullups. Finally, they must run a mile and a half in 12:30 or less.
As students attempt each exercise, they face the possibility of being dropped from the course and being reclassified into another career field.
“Every single time I’ve got to drop somebody,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Bailey, the lead instructor. “I feel bad because I know that they got into something that they knew nothing about. Because we’re a small field, very few people know that we exist.”
Students spend up to three and a half hours per day in the water, but also spend time in the classroom, learning about diving physics and how to maintain their equipment.
Dive instructors put students through a series of rites of passage, and ultimately test whether students can remain calm in situations that often cause heightened panic. The first such test came on the third day of training.
In addition to remaining calm underwater and developing breathing skills, diving school students must maintain rigid physical fitness standards.
(Photo Credit: Joe Lacdan)
Test of Wills
A soldier’s exasperating screams echoed in the swimming complex as he struggled to retrieve his equipment at the bottom of the pool. Instructors removed the diver’s mask, fins and air regulator and tossed them into the deep end of the pool. When the course began earlier that week, he lagged behind classmates during endurance laps.
Now at 1:30 p.m., the weather conditions in central Missouri hovered at around 95 degrees.
Inside the swimming complex the heat and humidity make the poolside area feel like a pressure cooker, not making the training any easier. During the test, instructors rip off pieces of the students’ scuba gear. soldiers must descend 14 feet and retrieve the gear in a single breath.
Holdner and Bailey bobbed at the surface, shouting instructions. They slapped water into the faces of the two remaining students in an attempt to simulate the unpredictable sway of an ocean current.
Pfc. Stephen Olinger dons swimming fins before a training exercise at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in July 2018.
(Photo Credit: Joe Lacdan)
Here both instructors attempted to escalate the stress level to a fever pitch. Their screams, combined with the splashing water, simulate what instructors call a “rough sea state.” On missions, a diver’s rig might fail and they would no longer be able to breathe. Or divers may get bumped by an obstruction, falling debris, marine life or land they didn’t see. The current can also knock their air regulator off their suit.
When faced with the possibility of drowning, the diving instructors said water fills a swimmer’s nostrils, invoking feelings of nausea and sometimes vomiting. It can cause extreme panic, breaking down even the best of athletes and the most confident swimmers.
“We say water is the great equalizer,” Bailey said. “We have plenty of people that come here that are great physical specimens … They can do everything on land … But then, you put them in the water and guess what? They fall apart. They become two different people.”
Water can create extreme panic causing soldiers to lose their bearing, forcibly shoving fellow swimmers out of the way in order to reach for the shore. The violence of the water currents can push some soldiers to the edge.
“If you’re not comfortable,” Bailey said. “Water will bring out the worst in people.”
Bailey, a soldier with a neatly-combed crew cut and a stocky, fit build, teaches the class with a cool demeanor. He barks instruction with stern authority, but minutes later will crack a joke to put the students at ease.
Army divers must be able to communicate with the crew above before going on a deep-sea dive. Though they must operate underwater with little instruction, a deep-sea diver will have the only view of the operation.
(Photo Credit: Joe Lacdan)
An experienced veteran diver of 13 years, he tested his mettle at sea on a diverse array of maritime missions across the globe. He faced one of his most difficult challenges during a deployment to Iraq along a river. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device had damaged a bridge and infantry units needed engineer divers to perform reconnaissance underwater.
At the river’s center in the shadow of the bridge, Bailey, then a young soldier, entered the water. He and another diver descended nearly 40 feet into the river’s depths. Almost immediately after he entered the river’s pitch black waters, disaster struck.
“As soon as I hit that water, I lost my grip,” Bailey said. “The current took me and immediately just threw me back.”
As he felt the pull to the bottom, the river broke his helmet’s seal. Cold water rushed into his head gear. His suit remained attached to an umbilical air supply cord, restricting his movement. He waited for a teammate to pull him back to shore while calming his nerves in the face of extreme conditions.
“I couldn’t swim to the shore,” he said. “I wasn’t moving. The only way I was getting out of there is if I was getting pulled out. And now my helmet was flooded. So what would have happened if I had panicked or I was not able to remain calm?”
Soldiers must face the fear of drowning and their own mortality on each mission. And each time, Divers must tame their emotions or lives will be at stake. In the worst conditions, soldiers will operate with limited visibility while carrying up to 80 pounds of underwater gear.
“I’ve been in situations where I’m using my hands as my eyes,” Holdner said. “One little mistake can be an injury for you. It’s not an environment that’s going to go easy on you.”
Holdner, a youthful-looking staff sergeant with slicked back dark hair who sports a cascade of tattoos on his right arm, graduated from the course in 2010. He entered with a larger class — 96. Only six made the cut and advanced to Phase II. Holdner said the mental hurdles the course poses can be the most difficult to overcome.
Even the second-time student looked visibly rattled as the two jockeyed for position before descending below. Athletically built with a wide upper body, the student easily passed the physical fitness tests and he seemed likely to survive to the next phase in Panama City, Florida.
Then the unexpected happened.
Inexplicably, he swam to the poolside and signaled to the instructors he wanted to drop out. He decided he had enough.
One student remained.
The private’s panicked expression reflected his extreme duress. Of the 12 students who attempted the course, he was the only remaining soldier. The shortest student in the class, this soldier struggled to finish the swimming endurance drills earlier in the week. But he persevered to make it to the third day.
But his chances have dimmed.
As the private spent more time bobbing his head above the surface, he lost valuable time that could have been spent underwater searching for equipment.
An instructor then blew his whistle. The soldier didn’t make the cut.
Slowly, the soldier swam toward the pool’s edge. Still breathing heavily, he gingerly exited the pool and walked toward his gear. He must now wait for the Army to reclassify him into a new career field.
About 12 to 20 students begin each class. Only 1 to 3 normally graduate. Sometimes, as with the July 2018 students, none make it.
Although instructors must cut the majority of the students, they don’t take each decision lightly. Often before they pull recruits from the course, they have counseling sessions. They sit down with each student and explain why they cannot advance to the next phase.
Often, emotions spill.
“They’re in tears,” Bailey said. “This is something that they’ve wanted to do for a long time or this is something that they’ve told their family about and everyone is rooting for them and they don’t want to disappoint their family.”
Bailey said recruiters and drill sergeants often don’t have accurate accounts of engineer diver training. Soldiers then arrive at Fort Leonard Wood with misconceptions about the realities of training.
Navy instructors check Soldiers’ scuba equipment. Equipment management and maintenance is critical for diver safety, instructors said.
(Photo Credit: Joe Lacdan)
Two Phase I diving school graduates joined the class of students who trained here in the July heat. Instead of sporting the black Army shirts with gold letters, they donned white shirts and brown swimming trunks to distinguish themselves from the current class. They continued to train with incoming classes to keep their skills fresh as they waited for Phase II in Panama City.
Pvts. 1st Class Stephen Olinger and Nolan Hurrish are only months into their Army careers.
Olinger, a bright-eyed recruit who was raised partially overseas, carries a swagger and self-confidence as he approaches each exercise. He graduated in March. Hurrish, a soft-spoken but diligent recruit from Wisconsin, has quietly passed each test. They don’t know if they will survive the next six months at Panama City. But they remain optimistic that in less than 16 weeks they will join the fewer than 150 Army divers worldwide.
“I have an attitude like ‘this is it,” Olinger said. “This is what I came here to do. If I fail out, I fail out. But I’m going to give it everything.”
The world’s five oceans, where many of the 12 dozen or so Army divers throughout the world must perform, can be ruthless.
The sea is an unpredictable, faceless adversary unlike any other soldiers face in the battlefield, and no less deadly.
Students will get their first taste of that adversary off the shores of the Florida Panhandle in Phase II of the diving school.
(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the Army’s engineer diver training. For part two, click here.)
Three Phase-1 human clinical trials evaluating an Army-developed Zika purified inactivated virus vaccine, known as a ZPIV, have shown it was safe and well-tolerated in healthy adults and induced a robust immune response. Initial findings from the trials were published early in December in the medical journal “The Lancet.”
Each of the three studies included in the paper was designed to address a unique question about background immunity, vaccine dose or vaccination schedule. A fourth trial with ZPIV is still underway in Puerto Rico, where the population has natural exposure to other viruses in the same family as Zika (flaviviruses), such as dengue.
“It is imperative to develop a vaccine that prevents severe birth defects and other neurologic complications in babies caused by Zika virus infection during pregnancy,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, WRAIR’s Director for Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Zika program co-lead and the article’s lead author. “These results give us hope that a safe and effective vaccine will be achievable.”
Across the three trials, a total of 67 healthy adult volunteers (55 vaccine, 12 placebo) received two vaccine injections, four weeks apart. Researchers measured the immune response by monitoring levels of Zika virus-neutralizing antibodies in the blood. More than 90% of volunteers who received the vaccine developed an immune response against Zika.
“Not only is the development of a Zika vaccine a global public health priority, but it is also necessary to protect Service Members and their families,” said Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead.
The ZPIV vaccine candidate was developed as part of the U.S. Department of Defense response to the 2015 outbreak of Zika virus in the Americas. WRAIR researchers conceived the ZPIV vaccine in February 2016 and were able to advance the candidate to a Phase 1 human trial by November of the same year.
“WRAIR has previously steered to licensure a similar vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, a flavivirus in the same family as Zika, which helped speed our vaccine development effort,” said Dr. Leyi Lin, who led one of the trials at WRAIR.
In the volunteers who received the vaccine, neutralizing antibody levels peaked two weeks after they completed the 2-dose vaccine series, and exceeded the threshold established in an earlier study needed to protect monkeys against a Zika virus challenge. Researchers also found that antibodies from vaccinated volunteers protected mice from a Zika virus challenge, providing insight into how this vaccine might prevent Zika infection.
Next steps include evaluating how long vaccine-induced immunity lasts, and the impact of dose, schedule and background immunity. Michael added that, “Army researchers are part of integrated, strategic US Government effort to develop a vaccine to protect against Zika.”
The ZPIV program is led by Col. Michael and Dr. Modjarrad. The principal investigators at each of the study sites were Dr. Leyi Lin at WRAIR, Dr. Sarah L. George at SLU and Dr. Kathryn E. Stephenson at BIDMC. The sponsor of the investigational new drug application for two of the studies (WRAIR and SLU) is the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The BIDMC study is investigator-sponsored by Dr. Kathryn Stephenson.
On Feb. 28, 2015, Staff Sgt. Sebastiana Lopez stepped out of her apartment on an early Saturday morning in Charleston, South Carolina. The humidity was low, making a good day for a motorcycle ride. As she went back into her apartment to swap her car keys for motorcycle keys, she didn’t know it was the first step toward a life-changing moment.
Lopez’s four older siblings served in the US military in different branches. She looked up to them, eventually joining the US Air Force. She served for seven years as a crew chief on C-17s. Lopez’s parents immigrated to the US illegally, and she felt that she owed her country for the new opportunities afforded to her. Joining the military was her way of saying thank you.
As Lopez was coming around a corner of the road on her motorcycle, an armadillo was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her motorcycle and the armadillo collided causing her to crash into the curb, ejecting her from the bike and directly into a tree. She remembers bear hugging a tree and her leg kicking her in the face, breaking the motorcycle helmet visor. She fell to the ground and a plume of dust erupted. She never lost consciousness.
Lopez was dazed but immediately started thinking about how to survive. She tried to do blood sweeps, but her arms wouldn’t move. She saw that her leg was positioned at an unnatural angle and thought, “Well, that sucks. I probably need to put a tourniquet or something on that.” No matter how she looked at it, she wasn’t able to self-administer aid due to the extent of her injuries.
Her lung was punctured by a broken rib, she had several broken bones, an amputated (above the knee) right leg, lacerated liver, ruptured spleen, and many other internal and external injuries. Lopez was losing blood fast, and every breath felt like a million stab wounds, but she maintained a goal.
Sebastiana with her family after her accident. Photo courtesy of Sebastiana Lopez.
“So I kind of looked up at the sky, and I’m like, there’s nothing I can do about this except for — keep breathing,” Lopez said.
She focused on each breath, counting in her head while she held her breath to minimize the pain. Then panic crept into her mind: It was a Saturday morning, people were up partying the night before, and it’s unlikely anyone will be awake to find her. Lopez stayed calm but couldn’t help thinking that this might be the end.
“I was pretty happy with the life I had already lived — even though it was very short, 24 years old at the time,” Lopez said. She accomplished what she had always wanted to do, giving back to her country by joining the Air Force. As she settled into being okay with the fact that she was dying, a car drove past.
She said that the first thought that popped into her head was, “That’s a stupid-looking car.” Then she realized that the person driving that car might be her ticket out of there. Luckily, her motorcycle had come to a stop up the road. The bystander saw it and immediately threw his vehicle into reverse. He found Lopez lying next to the tree, and the fear on his face was evident. He panicked, and the first thing he asked her was, “Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
Side by side (right photo showing initial recovery, left showing extensive recovery) comparison showing just how much Sebastiana has recovered since her crash. Photo courtesy of Sebastiana Lopez.
The ambulance arrived, and even though Lopez couldn’t see him, she recognized the voice of one of the responders. He was an Air Force reserve pilot she had flown with during an operation in Malaysia when they were designated as a backup C-17 for the president while he toured that area of the world. Hearing a familiar voice, especially someone she knew from the military, immediately put her mind at ease. I might make it through this, she thought.
Despite the massive amount of blood loss, Lopez can recall up until the point when the hospital staff wheeled her into the OR. Her heart stopped not long after her arrival at the hospital, but they managed to get her back. She woke up a month later surrounded by her family, and she felt like she might have been in purgatory. A priest was close by and had been waiting to give Lopez her last rites in coordination with her Catholic beliefs.
“They knew telling me the news that, hey, you don’t have a leg anymore, was going to just tear me apart,” Lopez said. “To be quite honest, it didn’t. At least initially because I was just happy to wake up. It didn’t really hit me until a few months later that life was going to get pretty shitty and pretty hard, especially when I lost my hand function in both hands.”
Shortly after waking up from the coma, Lopez sustained a stroke and lost her speech. Her family added a degree of frustration when they unknowingly talked slowly and loudly to her, thinking she had lost the ability to process information as well. This was one more blow, but it didn’t shake Lopez — it was just another speed bump.
“I was like, Motherfuckers, I understand what y’all are saying — I just can’t verbalize my answer or write it even,” she said, adding that she felt trapped, much like when she was lying on the ground after her crash.
Lopez loves sports, and the driving force to compete again kept her internal fire blazing. As she completed her speech therapy and regained the ability to speak, she started to feel better about herself. Her first steps with her prosthetic leg brought even more confidence.
Even while Lopez completed speech therapy and physical rehabilitation, another battle loomed under the surface. One of the first movements she had to do was rolling from side to side, and whenever she did, the incision from her abdominal surgery would start bleeding. The hospital staff was growing concerned and asked her if she wanted to stop.
“I was like, ‘Hell no, I need to start moving!'” she said.
She recovered to an extent while staying at the Medical University of South Carolina hospital. She described it as similar to a scene out of Kill Bill when Uma Thurman’s character wills herself out of paralysis by saying, “Wiggle your big toe.”
Sebastiana competing in the Invictus Games. Photo courtesy of Sebastiana Lopez.
Lopez aggressively pursued her exercises while running a consistent temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. From rolling side to side to putting on her socks by herself, she was making progress. But then she started losing energy again and didn’t feel well. Her recovery was coming along, but she lost function in her right arm. She was scheduled to be transferred to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a higher level of physical rehabilitation.
Her new doctors ran tests and found out that Lopez was septic, which is a widespread, serious infection within the body that can have lethal consequences. She was transferred directly into the ICU.
Once recovered, Walter Reed brought on even harder rehabilitation training — and the results were even better. Lopez worked hard and rep after rep moved closer to her goal of competing again.
She spent hours every day sending signals to her hands and any other part of her body that wouldn’t readily move with her internal instructions. She eventually regained some command over the movement of her fingers.
Sebastiana Lopez Arellano powers a hand cycle during the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando. May 9, 2016. DoD News photo by EJ Hersom, courtesy of Sebastiana Lopez.
After her incident, the Air Force enrolled Lopez in what’s called the Casualty Care Program and the Recovery Care Program. She was assigned a Recovery Care Coordinator (RCC). Lopez transferred to outpatient physical rehab, and one day while she was working on different exercises, her RCC walked up to her. She asked Lopez what she thought about doing an adaptive sports camp.
“No, I’m not ready. I’m still rehabbing my hand — I want to be able to wipe my butt first before I go compete or learn a sport,” Lopez responded. Her RCC told her a white lie: “You’re still in the US Air Force, you kind of have to.”
Lopez later found out that wasn’t the case, but she felt that the RCC knew she needed a little push. The RCC signed up Lopez, unbeknownst to her, for a beginner’s adaptive sports camp through the Air Force Wounded Warrior program.
What her RCC said was a beginners camp was actually the tryouts for the Air Force’s Wounded Warrior Games team. Lopez found out once she arrived at the “camp,” but with her no-quit spirit, she persevered and made it onto the team.
Within a year of her accident, Lopez competed in the Wounded Warrior Games and earned five gold medals for two-hand cycling races, shot put, discus, and sitting volleyball.
“The funny thing about the 2016 Warrior Games, I broke my arm the first day we got there,” she said, laughing. “So I competed the entire week with a broken arm.”
From that first Warrior Games to her most recent competition performance in the 2019 Team USA Parapan American Games, Lopez has achieved her goal of competing again — and then some. In addition to the medals from the 2016 Warrior Games, she went on to medal over 19 times in different events over the course of the next few years, and she even established a world record in discus.
Lopez has defied the physical disabilities that the armadillo caused that fateful Saturday morning in February 2015.
“I might still pursue [Team USA] in the future, between school and everything else — I’m kind of looking into starting a family soon, and I want to focus on that,” Lopez said. “I’m not saying that’s the end of the world for me. I probably will try to pursue it, but maybe 2024 for me.”
Every branch of the service has that place their soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines just dream of getting orders for.
That place could be anywhere that might appeal to an individual… maybe they love the cultural experience of being in Europe, or they enjoy the sun in Hawaii, or maybe they’re just away from their hometown.
These aren’t those places.
Army: Fort Polk, Louisiana
Ever hear of Leesville, Lousiana? No? Good for you. Living in a swamp is not something anyone grew up dreaming about. The nearest towns are at least an hour away, and the nearest fun is in New Orleans, a long drive away.
Sure, the PX is supposedly great thanks to a facelift, but it had better be: There’s nothing else to do. Fort Polk will supposedly ruin your car, ruin your marriage, and make you hate biting lizards.
Navy: NAS Lemoore
Hey, how does being cast out into one of the most polluted cities on the planet sound? Because NAS Lemoore is a great place to get asthma.
Most people who haven’t been to Clovis will argue that I spelled “Minot” wrong. I argue that any place referred to as “Afcannonstan” is probably far worse.
Both places are pretty remote, and while Minot has a seemingly endless winter, the people of Clovis are annually subjected to a wave of giant insects. Also, the stink of cow dung doesn’t travel as far in the cold. Cannon’s airmen would tell you to be happy it’s so cold.
Marine Corps: Twentynine Palms, California
All of the duty stations on this list have one thing in common: They’re pretty far from real American life. Twentynine Palms is no different. These guys are smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
So, Marines can prep for sandstorms in the Middle East with sandstorms right here at home. And remember, when airmen complain about the smell of cow manure in the desert, Marines can complain about the lake of sewage.
Coast Guard: You tell me.
The Coast Guard talks about its districts like it’s in the world of The Hunger Games. Everyone seems to love district 13. In fact, as much flak as the Coast Guard gets for being the awkward child of the military, the Coast Guard doesn’t seem to have a “worst” station among them.
I’m told the station at Venice, Louisiana can be pretty bad and that the CG will let you choose your follow on orders for doing a tour there. But no one ever seems to talk Twentynine Palms-level smack about any station.