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By Tessa Stuart
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He requested the autopsy report. Two weeks later, when he still hadn't received it, he called back and was told that he hadn't submitted a written request. When he asked for the accident report, he was stonewalled.
In March, Eddie filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all material on the investigation. Just as reporters often find when they file such requests with government officials, that didn't yield anything. Fed up after a month of no answers about Michael's death, Eddie says: "I went into prick mode." He called and wrote his congressman and local politicians. He called every Army number he could find every day. He reached out to a TV news station in Louisiana. He even appealed to Oprah. He Googled the Army and came up with more than 70 fax numbers.
"Every single military fax number I could find, I sent requests to," he says. "And I was pissing people off, because they were telling me: 'You're sending it to the wrong place.' But I wanted to piss them off so they'd do something."
It seemed to take forever. Army spokeswoman Samantha Evans, like many other government flacks in similar situations, says that she understands Eddie Fremer's frustration, but that it's Army policy not to release information until an investigation is 100 percent complete.
Once pieced together, the account of the accident was pretty straightforward. But it took Eddie three months of bird-dogging officials before he got that straightforward account.
And when he finally got it, his anger only deepened.
"If he had died in the Middle East," Eddie says, "I would still be sad, but I wouldn't feel he died for a stupid reason." That hit home on May 16, when he finally received the 80-page report from the Army.
That investigation ultimately found that several mistakes contributed to the fatal accident, and four soldiers were disciplined for them. (The Army refused to provide the specifics of the discipline.)
The most egregious error, the investigation found, was that despite the presence of specific training rules and procedures, no one had put the commonly used chock-block wedges behind the wheels of the LMTV to keep it from rolling backwards. In addition, the report said, the soldier who had accidentally disengaged the truck's brake with the machine gun shouldn't have been in that position if she didn't know how to re-engage the brake.
"When I read it, it just depressed me and made me angry," Eddie says. "I thought: What a ridiculous way to die. If they'd just used the freaking blocks or engaged the freaking brake, he'd still be alive."
Stephen Babcock, a Louisiana attorney that Eddie contacted about his son's case, tried to peg what a negligent-death lawsuit could have yielded: "I would conservatively estimate that the case would be worth at least $1 million, and possibly several times that much," he says.
Consider what an experienced personal-injury lawyer could do with the statement from the private who disengaged the brake: She told investigators that she had missed the training on the operation of the truck that killed Fremer because she was working in the mailroom at the time. More fodder for a lawsuit: Another private noted during the investigation, "I think things would have gone different if we would have had more sleep and rest."
But the Feres Doctrine renders the claim worthless. In 1947, an Army lieutenant named Rudolph Feres was burned to death in a fire sparked after a maintenance crew improperly installed a heating system in his barracks in upstate New York. Three years later, the Supreme Court struck down an attempt by his widow to sue the Army, saying the death was "incident to service." For the past 60 years, the Feres Doctrine has repeatedly been challenged in court but never defeated. Those with an interest in such cases point out that while criminals locked up in prison are now allowed to sue the government for negligence, those serving their country (or their families) are shit out of luck.
It's not that Eddie Fremer couldn't use a little extra dough. After all, he's a bank clerk making $60,000 a year, a middle-class guy. But he says the real reason he contacted a dozen lawyers—none of whom said a lawsuit would have a chance—is that he wants to hold Army officials accountable for shoddy training procedures and make them correct things so that others won't have to go through what he has. Because non-combat deaths are not an infrequent occurrence in the military: According to Department of Defense statistics, more than 20 percent of the military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq have occurred in "non-hostile" situations.
In any case, Eddie Fremer still sounds pissed off, despite the Army's admission that there were screw-ups that cost his son Michael his life.
"It's like, 'We're sorry for your loss, but tough luck,' " Eddie says. "When this first happened, I couldn't sleep because I was so sad. Now I can't sleep because I'm so mad. I feel right now he died for nothing, and if you're going to choose the military for a career, beware. If careless accidents like this can happen—it's . . . it's just unacceptable."