Navy Recruit's Drowning: Chilling Tale of Determination, Terror

The Washington Post

One day when Lee William Mirecki was 5, he thought he was going to drown. Older kids playfully tossed him into the deep end of a friend's back-yard pool, then dunked his head under water. To the sobbing, sputtering child, it wasn't a joke.

"It's OK, it's OK," his father said as he pulled the boy out of the water and tried to console him.

But the memory of those terrifying moments never left Lee Mirecki. Though he spent his childhood on the picturesque lakes and rivers of northern Wisconsin and grew up to be a strong swimmer, he never was at ease in the water.

In a swimming pool in Pensacola, Fla., last winter, his fear came rushing back. As a 19-year-old Navy airman in training, Mirecki was assigned to the rigorous Rescue Swimmer School. On the third day of training an instructor playing the role of a drowning person grabbed him and Mirecki, as he had that day 14 years earlier, panicked and gasped for breath.

After listening to Mirecki, a doctor at the base gave a preliminary evaluation--"phobic reaction versus situational anxiety, avoidant reaction"--and recommended that he go back to the class and try to conquer his fears.

His mother, Elaine Mirecki Kitowski, agreed. "Lee, you've got to try it again," she told him. "You're not a quitter."

Two days later, Kitowski, clad in a bathrobe, answered the doorbell at her house in the north Wisconsin woods and found three uniformed men on the front steps. Before they said a word, she knew.

She passed out before the men could inform her that the youngest of her four children had drowned in a Navy swimming pool on March 2. "Lee was in the water," Kitowski remembers them explaining later. "There were seven instructors. He was not responding to orders. They took him to the deep end to try again. His body went limp. . . . He had a heart attack. He drowned."

It was an accident, they said.

One of the Navy instructors traveled with the body from Pensacola to the little Catholic Church in Boulder Junction, Wis., where Lee Mirecki was buried. He stood at such stiff attention at the head of the casket that the family worried he must be awfully tired. An honor guard fired a salute.

After the funeral, the family had different worries. The Navy's account of the accident didn't seem to add up. "It was like someone gave me little bits and pieces that never fit," said Kitowski, who manages a supper club near this resort town.

Gradually, the family began to put those pieces together, and to pressure the Navy--which had begun its own investigation--to acknowledge the truth about Mirecki's death.

Earlier this month, Navy investigators charged that Mirecki's death was not an accident. They said that his instructors killed him in a chilling demonstration of brutality during which Mirecki's 26 classmates were ordered to stand with their backs to the pool and sing the national anthem while the instructors repeatedly shoved his head under water.

Five instructors have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and the course's commanding officer is accused of dereliction of duty.

The uncovering of the incident prompted a top-level review of Navy training programs worldwide and led the chief of the Navy's education and training command to question whether the Navy is training its men and women "too close to the edge."

The teen-ager who died in the Pensacola pool was the kind of recruit the U.S. military likes to hold up as exemplary of its volunteer forces. Mirecki was an all-around athlete with above-average high school grades. He was ambitious and presented no discipline problem.

"We were honored to have a young man of his character, integrity and enthusiasm," Mirecki's commanding officer wrote his mother after his death. "He proved himself to be among the elite of this nation in qualifying for the Aircrew and Rescue Swimmer programs. We commend you for your guidance to Lee during his developing years, molding him into such a fine young man."

Mirecki's parents and siblings--Lynn, Laurie and Larry--had doted on Lee, the baby of the family, and "spoiled him rotten," Lynn said.

"He was our golden boy," she said. "Our perfect little boy."

He had beat his family and friends at virtually every sport he took on--from golf to bowling to darts. He played soccer, baseball and basketball. His friends called him Jocks because he excelled in so many sports.

He was the perpetual practical joker. He once painted his sleeping stepfather's fingernails and toenails bright red. After a party at the American Legion Hall where he worked as a janitor and dishwasher for his aunt, the manager, he filled her office with all the balloons.

At the same time, he was quick to do favors for others. His girlfriend, Andrea Cady, 16, recalled one summer morning when he sneaked into the supper club where she worked and did all her vacuuming and cleaning chores before she arrived, so they could spend the day together.

Mirecki spent most of his childhood in the lake region of northern Wisconsin, where his parents ran Roger's Deerpath Bar and Motel, a modest, 12-room inn for summer tourists. He grew up fishing and boating on the lakes and rivers, skiing and ice-fishing in winter and helping stack cases of beer, wash dishes and haul firewood for the family business.

When his father, Roger Mirecki, died from complications of heart surgery five years ago, his mother sold the motel and moved into the home of a family friend on the Trout River near the resort hamlet of Manitowish Waters.

Lee had a corner bedroom with a view of the birch-lined river. He spent long hours on the tiny pier behind the house, feeding the mallards and white swans. Often, his mother found him floating on his rubber raft in the tranquil river.

As a teen-ager, he grew restless in the rural area that loses almost three-fourths of its residents after the summer season. School was 20 miles away, and the only jobs a youth could get were working for a logging company or in the kitchens of the resort restaurants and hotels.

When he reached his junior year his mother reluctantly agreed to let him move to Appleton four hours to the south and live with his sister, Lynn, and her family, where he thought the high school would offer more opportunities.

"He wanted the better side of living," his mother said. "He didn't want to end up living up north, scrimping and saving, where it's hard to make a living."

Mirecki later decided to join the Navy for the reason that attracts many of the service's brightest recruits: educational benefits that would allow him to go to college and major in psychology. He dreamed of being a Navy pilot but settled for a more realistic goal: becoming a crewman on P3 antisubmarine surveillance aircraft.

Typical Homesick Recruit

Aside from the rigors of boot camp, Mirecki seemed to enjoy the Navy. Like many recruits away from home for the first time, however, he was miserably homesick. Some months, his sister Lynn and his mother would have telephone bills exceeding $200. He once wrote his mother that Sunday chapel was the most popular event of the week because homesick recruits could go there and cry and no one would notice.

His mother keeps an annotated copy of a Recruit Training Command brochure her son sent after his first weeks in the Navy. Next to a picture of recruits stepping off the bus he penned: "Everyone is so scared."

On a double page depicting gas-mask orientation, an indoor firing range and recruits drilling, he wrote: "We learned all this in one week. It's called 'Hell Week.' "

Between a picture of young men lined up at telephone booths and one of recruits writing letters home, he scribbled: "My favorite times."

Mirecki's family said that despite his fear of water, he was looking forward to passing the Rescue Swimmer School program and moving ahead with his Navy career. The night before he died, he telephoned his mother and told her: "I'm gonna do it, Mom. I've got to do this. I've got to make something of myself. I want to make you proud. I love you, Mom."

Reporter Got Tips

Two weeks after Mirecki's death, his sister Lynn Johansen received a telephone call from a Pensacola newspaper reporter who said she had received anonymous calls from the naval base. "There's something wrong with the way that boy died," one caller said. "He shouldn't have died," another said.

"My stomach turned and I started crying," said Johansen, 30, the eldest of the Mirecki children. "We knew it, we knew it."

With that telephone call she and her husband, Larry, embarked on a consuming quest to uncover the truth about her brother's death. They spread their telephone number throughout the barracks where Mirecki lived and asked other recruits to call them collect. They enlisted the aid of Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.). They wrote letter after letter to naval officials, who gave them conflicting information and seemed to be dragging out the investigation without a resolution in sight.

Vice Adm. N. R. Thunman, chief of the Navy's education and training command, now says the Navy should have been more helpful to Mirecki's family. "I wish we'd made things a little clearer early on," he said. "There never was any question that we weren't going to take this down to bare metal."

Navy Confirms Story

About two weeks ago, the Navy confirmed much of the information the Johansens had pieced together.

Mirecki decided to try a second time to pass the "sharks and daisies" drill that had given him problems the week before. In the drill, which simulates the rescue of panic-stricken survivors of an air crash, trainees must subdue thrashing victims and swim with them to safety. On his second time, Mirecki's fear apparently worsened.

According to the criminal charges against the instructors, Mirecki panicked during the drill and tried to escape the instructors. He climbed out of the pool and clung to an equipment rack, but some of the instructors pried his hands from the rack, according to the charges, pushed him back into the pool and shoved his head under water.

Mirecki flailed, screamed and grabbed a pool safety rope, but the instructors pulled him from the rope and held him in a rear head hold until he lost consciousness, according to the charges. He never regained consciousness, despite efforts to revive him.

Mirecki's family was stunned to learn that Petty Officer 1st Class David J. Smith--the instructor who had accompanied Lee's body back to Wisconsin and had dined with the family after the funeral--was one of those charged with involuntary manslaughter.

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