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Paralyzed soldier says Army was at fault in fatal wreck on Fort Carson

May 4, 2016 Updated: May 6, 2016 at 2:45 pm
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Staff Sgt. Justin L. Holt was killed in a training accident on Feb. 6, 2015.

The Army says a wrong turn led to a fatal rollover wreck last year that sent an 18-ton Stryker vehicle tumbling over a cliff.

A soldier who lost the use of his legs in the incident, though, says the cause of the wreck was 1st Brigade Combat Team commanders pushing their troops too hard in training with unfamiliar equipment.

“It was murder,” said retired Sgt. Tim Riney, one of five soldiers hurt in the 9 p.m. crash on Feb. 6, 2015.

Staff Sgt. Justin L. Holt, 31, died when he was thrown from the Stryker along with Riney when the Stryker tumbled off a 250-foot cliff on the post’s training range 41, on the southeastern corner of the 135,000-acre installation.

Investigators spent months probing the crash and it took more than a year for the Army to release documents in the incident. The documents contain vast redactions where the Army has blacked out investigators’ findings, leaving a wrong turn to blame in the public version of events.

Fort Carson said in a statement on Wednesday that Holt contributed to his own death by not wearing a seatbelt.

“Following the accident, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team and 4th Infantry Division re-emphasized the use of restraint systems, personal protective equipment and load plan discipline,” the post said.

Who or what the Army blames specifically for the Stryker crash remains hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Investigators issued 10 pages of findings and recommendations. They redacted each page, keeping the information secret by citing an exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act to keep interagency memorandums secret.

A 14-page account of the accident’s cause was also blacked out.

Riney’s account and the Army’s report agree on the mechanics of the wreck, however.

The Stryker had taken a wrong turn and was reversing course to catch up with another vehicle when the rig hit soft soil near the edge of the cliff and tumbled over.

Riney, who joined the Army in 2012 and had deployed with the brigade to Kuwait before it got Strykers, remembers being strapped in his seat beneath Holt, who was hanging out of a hatch. The sergeant dove into the cabin — landing in Riney’s lap as the Stryker began to tip, Riney said.

Riney grabbed Holt and held on tight in a bid to keep his unsecured sergeant in the vehicle. But centrifugal force took over and ripped Holt and the seatbelted Riney through the hatch and into the cold night.

“The vehicle descended approximately 250 feet, coming to rest on a small level area halfway between the top of the ridgeline and the bottom of the hillside,” the Army said in its report.

Holt suffered injuries so severe that the first medics on scene moved on to other hurt soldiers, noting the sergeant was obviously dead. Riney snapped his spinal cord at about mid-chest.

Riney first went to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs then to Craig Hospital in Englewood, the state’s top rehabilitation facility for those with spinal cord injuries. He left the Army in a wheelchair two months ago for retirement in Florida.

Riney said he took the injury in stride.

“I was cracking jokes in intensive care,” he said.

But since the incident, he has battled for reports on the wreck, which the Army hasn’t sent him. Riney said he’s worried leaders will find it convenient to blame the fallen sergeant for the incident rather than leaders higher on the organizational chart.

“I know what happened,” he said. “I’m interested to see where they want to point the finger to say who did what went wrong.”

Some details of the report support Riney’s version.

The 161-page report from the Army’s Combat Readiness Center shows leaders put Holt in charge of the eight-wheeled Stryker despite a prior shoulder injury and sent him to training against medical advice.

A lieutenant told investigators that having Holt on the training exercise against medical advice was no surprise.

“He stated that everyone goes to the field, even if you are practically ‘a walking dead man,’” Army investigators wrote.

Fort Carson said Holt asked permission to join the training mission.

“He was a good soldier who wanted serve and train beside his soldiers,” the post said.

Why was 1st brigade pushing so hard? Riney, 25, says it was driven by goal-focused leaders who cared for results more than their troops.

“The atmosphere there was unbelievably toxic, and I feel it led directly to this,” Riney said.

Toxic or not, leaders of 1st Brigade got incredible results. The unit was switched in 2014 from M-1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The brigade’s 4,500 soldiers entered a relentless training cycle designed to get them ready for combat in months. Last fall at Fort Irwin, Calif., 1st Brigade earned high praise from top Army brass after beating up on a mock enemy in one of the most impressive training exercise performances seen in recent years.

“In two short years you have built the Stryker unit of choice for the Army,” former brigade commander Col. David Hodne told his soldiers in a speech just before he left command last year.

The battlefield skills, though, came at a price. The unit lost two soldiers last year in rollover wrecks — one on Feb. 6 and another on Sept. 24 at Fort Irwin.

“We go from not having Strykers to ‘now be the best Stryker brigade tomorrow,’” Riney said.

The Stryker was pursued by the Army in the late 1990s as a way to give soldiers armored protection without the heavy weight of tracked vehicles. Strykers are designed to deploy quickly in Air Force planes and can hit freeway speeds.

But the Stryker has a mixed reputation in the Army, where soldiers have complained about rollovers for more than a decade. Soldiers say the top-heavy rig handles poorly in mud and lacks the agility to maneuver through a cliff-side crisis like the one faced by Riney and his comrades.

Leaders have also said unlike other Army wheeled vehicles, the Stryker has massive blind spots, requiring sergeants like Holt to hang out of hatches on the roof to keep drivers out of trouble.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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