A Teen Private-In-Training Is Crushed to Death
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.
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.
Eddie isn't about to get arrested at an anti-war rally, but he's not exactly a staunch supporter of the so-called Global War on Terrorism either. "I can see Afghanistan—maybe," he says. "But I think Iraq is just a waste. I think Bush sold us on a b.s. war, and we're stuck there."
In any event, Eddie says he didn't want his son, who at 17 needed his permission to join up, in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But he signed the papers anyway.
"He told me, 'This is really what I want to do,' " Eddie recalls. "So finally, reluctantly, I signed."
He didn't find out until after Michael's death that his ex-wife, Jamesetta Janssen, had actually gotten the ball rolling when it came to their son joining the Army.
After moving back in with his mom, Michael was no longer having the type of problems he'd had while living in Staten Island with his father. But he had screwed up his schooling so badly in Staten Island that, at 17, he was still a high-school freshman whose prospects of graduating anytime soon looked dim. Michael was doing a good job working at his stepdad's auto-repair shop, but he seemed lost, his mother recalls, adding: "I felt he needed more structure in his life. He was just a confused young man—that's what he was. He had no idea what his life was going to be."
So one day, Jamesetta, on her own, went to the recruiting station in Manahawkin, New Jersey, and talked to Sergeant Payne about signing her boy up.
She says that when she told Michael about it, he said he'd been thinking about joining the Army, too. "We were on the same page but didn't even know it," she recalls. Eddie's not buying that. He says he thinks his ex-wife and her husband, Roy Janssen, not only pushed the boy into joining up but even made the decision for him.
"Most moms would be pushing their sons not to join," he says bitterly.
Jamesetta denies forcing Michael's hand. And a story in a local Atlantic City newspaper two weeks before he shipped out for basic training indicated that Michael appeared to embrace the decision: "I'm not worried about the war," he was quoted as saying in the March 21, 2007, story about local recruiting efforts. "I've always liked the military. I plan on making this a career and staying in for 40 years if I can."
He had already taken a positive step: In order to join the Army, Michael Fremer worked with a tutor for months after school to earn the required GED.
There's little debate that once Michael was in the Army, he felt for the first time in his life that he had an identity: He was a soldier, a private second-class. Although Eddie still had misgivings, he grudgingly admits that it changed his son for the better.
"He told me loved it, loved the lifestyle," Eddie says. "I asked him where he saw himself three years down the road, and he told me he wanted to re-enlist. I told him: 'I wish you didn't enlist the first time.' "
In late December, Michael came home for a 10-day leave, and Eddie spent a day with him. They went to two malls in New Jersey, where Eddie bought his son some clothes, and they talked about Michael's pending deployment.
"He couldn't wait to go overseas," Eddie says. "It terrified me."
But Michael never made it out of Fort Polk, Louisiana. Six weeks later, he was dead.
The 80 pages of documents that Eddie Fremer pried out of the Pentagon tell this story of his son's last day:
At 4 a.m. on February 13, Michael reported to Fort Polk's motor pool with the rest of the 88th Brigade Support Battalion's Bravo Company. Michael's unit was brand-new. One major general described it in his best Pentagonese as being "a mission-tailored force that conducts support area and maneuver-support operations and consequence management to ensure the mobility, freedom of action, and protection of the forces they support." In other words, it's a mobile-support unit for combat troops.
That morning, the unit's convoy commander gave a safety briefing. The soldiers would dismount from the vehicles and walk near the trucks. The commander reminded the drivers not to run them over. He talked about the speed and distance that the vehicles needed to maintain. He reviewed the dangers of spiders and snakes, and, even though the temperatures would rise from the 40s to the 60s that day, he warned about the possibility of hypothermia. The eight-vehicle convoy rolled out just after six that morning.
The mission for that day had been evaluated beforehand as low-risk, and, for the next five and a half hours, "the training went without any hiccups," the convoy commander would later report.
At one point, Bravo Company came under fire by an "opposing force unit"—soldiers firing blanks who pretended to be Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Michael and the other good-guy soldiers were equipped with electronic devices (the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES) that would register if they were hit by laser beams affixed to the bad guys' weapons. After laying down "field fire" to clear the area, Michael's unit removed those posing as dead or injured and towed their disabled wrecker.
At about noon, the convoy came to a halt in a fenced-in field sandwiched between Lookout Road and the Fort Polk airport. All engines were turned off, and Michael and the other soldiers were ordered to turn in all of their unspent ammunition. Michael had been riding in a five-ton wrecker. The gunner of a two-and-a-half-ton Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) in front of his truck grabbed a drum of .50-caliber ammunition for his machine gun and headed over to the ammo drop-off point. As he did, a sergeant decided that Michael and his mates should clean the vehicles at a "wash rack" at the Lookout Road site.
Some of the soldiers grumbled that washing the vehicles there didn't make sense, since they'd only get dirty on the return drive to the base. One driver was so bold as to ask why they didn't just wash them at the motor pool, but, as he later told investigators, "I was told to drive on" to the wash rack.
That wasn't such a simple task: The crews had to remove the machine guns and their mountings and detach towlines that tethered some of the convoy vehicles together. Orders to do both tasks went out simultaneously. Michael's job was to remove the towlines. The gunner in the truck in front of his vehicle should have broken down his machine gun, but he was at the ammo drop. A private who specialized in repairing weapons was ordered to remove the gunner's machine-gun mount. It was incorrectly assumed that she had done this task before.
She removed the 16-pound weapon from its mount and propped it on the driver's-side floor, leaning the barrel against the dashboard. But as she attempted to remove the gun's mount, the weapon slid toward the passenger-side seat and accidentally struck and depressed the airbrake-release lever. The two-and-a-half-ton vehicle started rolling ever so slowly backward, down a slight slope. The truck commander saw what was happening and yelled at the soldier to re-engage the airbrake valve. But she didn't know how.
"The vehicle began to roll backwards," the soldier later told investigators. "I was thrown off-guard and panicked. There were people yelling everywhere. [The truck commander] kept yelling about a brake. I don't have a lot of experience with the mechanics of this vehicle, so I didn't know what I was looking for." (Later, she'd cry inconsolably in the arms of her husband, who was in the same unit. "It was all my fault," she wept.)
The truck was rolling backwards at a speed of only two or three miles per hour, several of the soldiers who witnessed it would later estimate. But Michael Fremer, flanked by two other privates, was unhooking the tow straps with his back to the moving vehicle. When the other soldiers saw the truck rolling, they yelled at him: "Move!" When Michael turned around, however, he froze—many of the onlookers later used that word to describe his reaction.
"I started pushing the truck because I noticed Fremer was frozen," said one of the two other privates with Michael behind the truck (his name was redacted from the report). "As I was pushing the truck, I kept yelling at him to get down. When the truck got too close, I went to grab him, but he would not move at all, so I had to get out of the way. When the truck started to crush him, all he would do is look at me."
Some described the two-and-a-half-ton truck actually bouncing off Michael and the five-ton wrecker. But most witnesses said he was pinned between the trucks until a soldier was able to drive the LMTV forward.
A soldier who had been an emergency medical technician in her civilian life was the first to give aid, but foam was already erupting from Michael's mouth. He sucked in a couple of labored breaths, then stopped breathing altogether. The former EMT tried without success to resuscitate him. An autopsy later revealed that the crushing injuries had damaged the sac around Michael's heart, basically causing it to drown in its own blood. By the time two Army officers knocked on the door of Eddie Fremer's Staten Island home that night, he already knew that his only child was dead. His ex-wife and her husband had been notified first, and Roy Janssen had then called Eddie, who was watching American Idol. "Ed, sit down," Roy had said to him. "Michael's gone."
"I couldn't comprehend it," Eddie recalls. "It was numbing. I said: 'Michael's gone? What do you mean?' "
Roy told him.
Eddie says he was still in a daze when the Army officers arrived a few hours later. He recalls their saying something about an accident that had happened while Michael and his unit were washing down their vehicles.
"I didn't sleep. You know, I did a lot of crying," Eddie says of the next few weeks.
Then frustration, mixed with curiosity and anger, started to take over. "I knew that Michael was gone," says Eddie, "but I didn't know the story."
So he made a few calls to Fort Polk and other Army posts, and he kept getting different stories. Not wildly divergent stories, but not the same one either—the tow strap broke, the brake malfunctioned. Eddie wondered, Which was it?
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."
There's apparently little love lost between Eddie Fremer and Jamesetta Janssen, but she says she thinks that it's time for her ex to let go of his anger.
"It was an accident," she says. "You don't just hate somebody because of an accident."
In fact, she adds, "the Army has been wonderful. They couldn't have been any more helpful than they were—and still are. They would've done the same for his father, but he wouldn't allow them to. They gave Michael everything that a regular soldier would have gotten if he would have died in Afghanistan or Iraq. He got the awards, he got the medal, he got the flag—everything. He went out with the whole thing."
For Eddie, however, that pomp doesn't make up for the circumstances of Michael's death. Eddie says he isn't giving up his battle with the Army. He's now putting together a pamphlet describing how his son died and explaining why, because of the Feres Doctrine, he isn't allowed to sue the government. He says he plans to hand out the pamphlets in front of the Army recruiting station in Times Square.
"If I run someone over, someone is going to sue me," he says. "I'm accountable for my actions. How come the Army isn't?"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.