Ill-Trained to Survive Heat : Marine’s Death in Desert: Mistakes Led to Tragedy
Lance Cpl. Jayson J. Rother was one tough Marine, but the stark, chocolate-brown mountains and the furnace-hot desert of San Bernardino County where he was lost proved to be tougher.
Left stranded by his outfit last summer, Rother, 19, disappeared somewhere out on the firing ranges of the 932-square-mile Marine Air-Ground Combat Center north of here. Out in that desert moonscape, temperatures reach 120 degrees, the ground bakes to a skin-searing 180 degrees and no one survives long without shade and water.
Rother, a rifleman already exhausted from three days of live-fire combat exercises, was posted as a road guide during large-scale night maneuvers. When his unit pulled out, he was left behind, seemingly forgotten. No one reported him missing for two days, a factor that some critics say could have spelled the difference between life and death.
Alone, with no map, compass and precious little water, the slightly built Marine from Minnesota died trying to walk out. His body was finally discovered Dec. 4, more than three months after a search failed to turn up any trace of the missing Marine.
Parts of his skeleton, his rifle and other equipment were found scattered along a rock-strewn gully by a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department search and rescue squad during a training exercise. Rother had walked about 17 miles through a living hell before collapsing only about a mile from a well-traveled highway, searchers reported.
“He was trying so hard to survive,” said his mother, Cecilia King. As she spoke recently, a gentle snow fell outside the modest home where Rother grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Minneapolis. Fighting back tears, she added, “I’m extremely proud of him for making such a horrendous effort to get out of there alive.”
Critics say this case raises questions about how the Marines account for their troops. And desert-survival experts say it also demonstrates just how ill-prepared individual Marines are when it comes to staying alive in the desert.
“A person adequately trained could have walked out of there,” said Robert Moon, a National Park Service ranger from nearby Joshua Tree National Monument. Moon, a desert specialist, assisted in the search for Rother. The Marine’s chances of survival were slim because he had no desert survival training, Moon said.
The news that the Marines had somehow left one of their own behind to die in the desert sent shock waves across the nation. And that, added to the fact that the corps had not found Rother’s body, prompted congressional leaders to put pressure on the Marine Corps to reopen the investigation. The Marine Corps commandant asked park rangers at Joshua Tree in November to head up a second search for the body.
Base officials say 50,000 Marines come through the base every year to train under rigorous combat conditions. While two other Marines died this year in training exercises, this is the first time that one has been lost and died of dehydration.
The Marines admit errors were made in keeping track of Rother. “Obviously it was not just one mistake by one individual,” Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Fred Peck said. “There were a number of mistakes . . . they all added and compounded to create a tragedy.”
Rother’s company commander and the officer leading Rother’s platoon have been relieved of their commands. The platoon sergeant and Rother’s squad sergeant are charged with dereliction of duty and face courts-martial. A third officer who assigned Rother as a road guide also faces court-martial on similar charges.
Copies of reports by Marine investigators obtained by The Times, interviews with Rother’s family, his squad sergeant and survival experts shed dramatic light on the tragic death. The reports show that during the night exercise, mobile units got tangled, exhausted troops took wrong turns and went hours without water, a critical factor in Rother’s case.
Rother’s outfit, the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, was airlifted into this desert base from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in mid-August for three weeks of combat training. Rother was lost on the last night of a three-day, live-fire exercise that concluded the unit’s stay here.
The battalion took to the field early on Aug. 28, its 1,200 heavily armed men riding trucks, tanks and armored vehicles. Not long after dawn, Rother--who weighed 135 pounds--was trekking across the desert with an 80-pound pack, grenades and 100 rounds of ammo for his M-16 rifle.
Rother was in Kilo Company, the unit leading the mock attack. His squad leader, Sgt. Thomas Turnell, 25, told The Times that his 12-man squad was leading the charge. “We were leap-frogging, moving up, then laying down covering fire while other units moved up,” Turnell said.
Heat, Sweat, Thirst
As the day wore on and temperatures soared over 100 degrees, sweat and thirst plagued the Marines. Each man carried a three-quart canteen, not enough to last half a day in such sweltering conditions, but there was no more water and no time to find shade.
“It was very nasty out there,” Turnell said. “It was 10 hours before we got a water resupply.” A Navy corpsman warned the platoon leader that the men were dehydrating fast and should go no farther until they got more water. The lieutenant ignored that warning, Turnell said, adding: “We had no choice but to go on. . . . It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through.”
Rother was one of those who suffered the most during the first two days of the exercise, the reports show.
Late on Aug. 30--the third hard day in the field--the battalion was ordered to make a 21-mile, motorized night march through a mountain pass, without lights. The unit commanders were told to post guides at checkpoints along the rugged route to direct the column. The guides, selected from various platoons, were to be posted in pairs.
Ironically, the exhausted Rother was picked as a guide because it was considered lighter duty. “He had problems with dehydration. . . . We saw this as an opportunity for him to recover,” said Lt. Christopher Johnson, the platoon leader.
At this point, keeping track of who was responsible for Rother’s whereabouts and safety becomes a central issue. Rother normally was assigned to 2nd Platoon, 1st Squad. When Johnson picked him for guide duty, Rother was temporarily assigned to an officer from another company, Lt. Allen V. Lawson, who had been selected by the battalion commander to run the guide detail.
According to Guy Garant, Turnell’s civilian attorney, when Rother was taken from the squad and assigned to Lawson’s detail, accountability for his whereabouts and safety was transferred to Lawson, who worked directly for the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Edward J. Robeson IV.
“I didn’t know when Rother would be returned” to the squad, Turnell told The Times. When Turnell asked his platoon sergeant, Sgt. Christopher P. Clyde, he was told that Rother would come back when Lawson “was good and ready” to send him back.
Lawson took two Marines from Kilo Company, Rother and Lance Cpl. Donald A. Key, loading them in a truck with a dozen other road guides from various outfits. Records show that Lawson put Rother and Key out alone, instead of in pairs as he had been ordered to do. He put them at desert road intersections about 100 yards apart.
“We told him we shouldn’t be separated,” Key reported to Marine investigators. Neither Marine was told when he would be picked up or taken back to his own unit, Key said. During the night, he reported he could see Rother’s signal light through the dust as scores of tanks, trucks and armored vehicles roared by.
The night maneuvers took place in rugged terrain crisscrossed by rough roads and tank trails leading up to a mountain pass and down onto a plain. Adding confusion, the 3rd Battalion was not the only unit moving along those tracks that night. The 3rd Battalion’s vehicles got mixed up with units of the 1st Battalion, 10th Marine Division, reports show.
In the dark, no one was certain who was going where. When Key was finally picked up by the last truck in the 3rd Battalion convoy, he found it was also carrying two guides from the 10th Division. But Rother wasn’t there. “I figured the 10th Marines would pick him up, since we picked up two of their men,” Key reported.
That was around midnight, Tuesday, Aug. 30. Rother’s commanders assumed he was with the 10th Marines and would show up sooner or later, according to statements given to investigators.
Back in camp after the exercise ended Wednesday, several Kilo Company officers went to the Beer Garden to celebrate the birth of Lt. Johnson’s daughter. Sgt. Turnell went on leave. Sgt. Clyde reported that all men and weapons in the 1st Platoon were accounted for, according to Capt. Michael Henderson, the Kilo Company commander.
Rother wasn’t reported missing until 5:35 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1. Left unanswered is why no one had reported him missing during the previous 44 hours.
An Arrow of Rocks
Late Thursday afternoon, a team of Marines was sent out to the checkpoint where Rother had been dropped off. There they found Rother’s helmet, flak jacket, backpack, all neatly stacked. They also found an arrow made of rocks pointing in an easterly direction toward the pass the battalion had moved through during the night exercise.
The evidence indicated that Rother was trying to hike out. He carried with him three quarts of water, two military food rations, his rifle, grenade launcher and ammo. For three days 1,700 Marines searched the desert by ground and air. When no trace of Rother was found, experts from Joshua Tree were called in on Saturday to assist in the search.
Ranger Moon, the desert-survival expert, calculated that Rother could not possibly survive the rest of Saturday, if he were still alive. Just sitting in the shade in that environment, Moon said, the body burns off three quarts of water a day. Without replenishment, heat stroke quickly sets in. He suggested that Rother probably waited to be picked up until mid-day temperatures forced him to try to walk out.
Moon calculated that Rother could go no more than 9 miles, and would have lost 12% of his body weight through water loss. The average person suffers heat stroke at 10% dehydration, Moon said. At that point, he said, a person’s “rational thinking and physical ability are close to zero.”
The search was called off on Sunday. Rother was presumed to be dead or AWOL by his unit commanders. The official reports acknowledged that he had been left behind by his outfit, but indicated that the young Marine had probably abandoned his post.
“There is sufficient evidence to conclude that LCpl Rother is UA (unauthorized leave),” Lt. Col. Robeson reported Sept. 12. However, after Rother’s body was found in December, a Marine spokesman in Washington said “there never was any evidence” to show that Rother had skipped out. No one explained why Robeson had filed such a report.
Not a Shirker
Those who knew Rother say he would never have shirked his duties. Rother’s teachers at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis described him as a bright, hard-working and reliable youngster. “He was always ready to help out,” said one teacher. Another added, “He was always there . . . he had perseverance.”
“The Marines would never have found Jayson if his mother hadn’t been so persistent,” said Barbara England, the school’s band director.
Rother, who played the baritone horn, was one of her favorite students. He also was captain of the wrestling team.
Rother’s mother agreed the Marines had not done enough to find her son. Sitting near a tall, plastic Christmas tree in her front room, King talked about her agony.
The family’s first inkling of trouble came when a Marine sergeant called on Labor Day weekend to find out if anyone had seen Rother. “I fell apart,” said King, who is divorced from Rother’s father. “I didn’t know what to do or who to call.”
Her younger son, Robert--a high school senior who had signed up for the Marines after his graduation--called his recruiter to get a number for Camp Lejeune. “Someone there told us Jayson was missing,” he said.
She said the family was told bits and pieces that didn’t fit together. “We had to pump for information and the answers kept changing,” the grieving mother said.
Her ex-husband, Jeff Rother of Cleveland, contacted Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), while she called Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.). She then went to the Minneapolis media, asking for help in finding out what had happened. Stories of how the Marines had lost one of their own made the nightly news and were reported in the major papers.
Responding to the pressure in November, the Marine Corps commandant announced that he had reopened the investigation into Rother’s disappearance. And a second search for the body was ordered, led this time by the ranger experts from Joshua Tree. The Marines flew the family to Twentynine Palms to meet with rangers and base officials and tour the area where Rother disappeared.
While this second search did not find Rother’s remains, rangers found tracks, directional arrows and other signs indicating that Rother had walked 11 miles to the spot where his battalion had bivouacked. From there, he could see old U.S. Highway 66, now called National Trails Highway, in the distance, and beyond that the lights of a tiny crossroad settlement called Amboy.
Evidence indicated Rother headed for the highway and died a mile short of that goal. “He could have made it, had he known a few simple survival rules,” Moon said. The ranger said Rother probably ate his two rations, complicating the situation. “Eating can be devastating,” Moon said, explaining that the water used to break down food is needed elsewhere by the body, for cooling.
In December, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s search and rescue unit used the information gathered by rangers to set up a training exercise in the area where the last traces of the young Marine had been found. The body was discovered Dec. 4.
Statements taken during the reopened investigation revealed the confusion during the long night march. Lt. Col. Robeson’s statement acknowledges that road guides from his units “did intermingle” with those of another outfit. He said his orders could have “been more directive about how the Marines were to be returned to their units,” but he assumed the company commanders would coordinate this work. He concluded, “These were not good assumptions.”
Robeson relieved Kilo Company Commander Capt. Henderson and 2nd Platoon Leader Lt. Johnson from command. Three others--Lt. Lawson and Sgts. Clyde and Turnell--face courts-martial, accused of dereliction of duty and other charges.
A Marine spokesmen said Robeson and other officers involved in the case were not available for comment. Only Turnell and Garant, his civilian attorney, would talk about the cases, which will go to trial sometime next month. They indicated that the defense will center on who was accountable for Rother’s whereabouts.
Rother’s mother has distanced herself from all of this, saying: “The Marines will have to do what they have to do.” She is not bitter, but she is apprehensive about her second son going into the corps when he graduates next spring.
In the meantime, the family and Rother’s fiancee, Amy Ringler, were trying to make it through the Christmas holidays without their loved one.