A Teen Private-In-Training Is Crushed to Death

. . . and his father fights for answers

Not everyone in the military dies the heroic death of somebody like pro athlete turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman—as it turned out, not even Tillman. Initially portrayed as a hero sprinting headlong into an ambush while trying to save his pinned-down buddies in Afghanistan, Tillman was really killed by friendly fire, the Pentagon was forced to acknowledge after its cover-up was exposed.

But at least Tillman got into the game. Michael Fremer died on a dusty, fenced-in field in the middle of Louisiana, 8,000 miles from Afghanistan. The teenage soldier-in-training from Staten Island was killed in an absurd accident this past February while performing a task that was about as dangerous as unhooking a trailer from its hitch.

Michael's father, 46-year-old bank clerk Eddie Fremer, finds it particularly bitter because his son's brief time in the military, though it had sparked family controversy, had appeared to help straighten out his aimless life.

Eddie Fremer
Stacy Kranitz
Eddie Fremer
Michael Fremer
Courtesy of Ed Fremer
Michael Fremer

At Michael's military funeral eight days after the accident, Eddie still wasn't sure how his son had died, except that it was "during a training exercise." The full-on funeral ritual was a more complex military exercise, and it was flawlessly executed. On February 22, as Michael lay in a casket covered by a United States flag, two sentries in full dress uniforms stood post on either side. Every five minutes during the elaborate ceremony, the sentries would "change out," exchanging a salute upon approaching and then another when relieving those whose spots they took.

A lieutenant colonel spoke at the wake, praising Michael's determination and outgoing personality. Staff Sergeant Joseph Payne told the family that if he were running a platoon, the first guy he'd want in it would be Michael. Payne, however, was no platoon leader; he was only the recruiter who had signed him up.

During the interment in Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in southern New Jersey, Michael was given the traditional three-volley salute (seven soldiers firing their rifles three times at his gravesite) before the flag draped over the coffin was carefully folded and handed to his mother, and another ceremonial flag was given to his dad.

Michael's mother, Jamesetta Janssen, cried when Payne and others ripped off their stripes and placed them in her son's casket. "How can you not be proud when your son is being honored by the United States Army. How can you not?" she later told the Voice. "And when the recruiters took their stripes off and put them in the coffin with Michael . . ." ("It was my way of showing the ultimate respect for that young man," Payne said.) The services ended with "Taps."

Standing apart from his ex-wife for most of the service, Eddie Fremer had a different take on the solemn ceremony.

"It did nothing for me," he says. "I don't know how to say this intelligently, but it was just a bunch of b.s. to me. It didn't mean nothing. All I could think of was: He's buried in a military cemetery at 18 for an eternity now."

For months afterwards, Eddie worked feverishly to get the complete story of his boy's death. When he did get it, he came to a gut-wrenching conclusion: "My son died for nothing."

He wants to sue somebody. He can't. He may need to curb his anger. He hasn't.

If Michael Fremer hadn't died because of a stupid, senseless accident, he might very well have become one of those clichéd Army success stories.

He grew up an only child in Bensonhurst. At age five, in December 1995, his parents separated, and he initially lived with his mom. In 1999, Michael moved in with his father, who had moved to Staten Island.

"I figured Staten Island was a better place to raise him than Brooklyn, but it didn't work out that way," Eddie says. By the time Michael hit Tottenville High, he was veering into trouble.

"He had good friends in Staten Island, and he had the punks," Eddie says, but the "good" friends evaporated. "He never attended class—a constant truant, using drugs, stealing mail. One time, a girl across the street accused him of stealing her iPod. He was just heading in the wrong direction."

After two years at Tottenville High, Michael had amassed a grand total of one credit. His parents decided another move was in order. So he was sent back to his mom, who was now living in the sleepy South Jersey town of Barnegat.

Eddie realized early on that his son "wasn't college material," but that didn't mean, of course, that he couldn't have a productive life. "You know what your kid is made of," he says. "But he was always good with his hands. Everyone in the family has a story of him putting something together that no one else could. I thought he should go to trade school." Eddie says he envisioned his son as a plumber, mechanic, or electrician.

So when Michael called him in February 2007 and said he wanted permission to join the Army, it knocked Eddie on his ass. "I had never heard 'military' out of his mouth before in all his life," his father says.

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