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Improper Rigging May Have Contributed to Paratrooper's Death

Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team descend on a drop zone at night during a joint operational access exercise, June 26, 2011, at Fort Bragg, N.C. Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod/Army
Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team descend on a drop zone at night during a joint operational access exercise, June 26, 2011, at Fort Bragg, N.C. Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod/Army

Spc. Nicholas Roberts must have known his weapons case didn't feel quite right.

The 27-year-old paratrooper asked the soldier jumping before him if his weapons case was positioned too low. The paratrooper told him to ask a jumpmaster, who is responsible for inspecting equipment before a jump.

The jumpmaster looked at Roberts' weapons case and said it was correct.

Roberts, of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, died during a training jump over Sicily Drop Zone on April 28.

Army investigators said improper rigging of his weapons case may have contributed to his death.

An investigation would later show that the jumpmaster team in place that night wasn't properly trained to rig and inspect the weapons case.

Roberts was the 16th jumper on the right door for the second pass of a C-17 during the training jump at Fort Bragg. It was the first time he was jumping at night with all of his equipment.

The paratrooper who jumped behind Roberts remembers him rotating on the platform of the aircraft as he exited. Roberts ended up backward, facing the inside of the aircraft as he jumped out.

His parachute inflated, but 90 minutes after the jump, no one could find Roberts on the ground.

A search party was formed, and 20 minutes later, paratroopers found his body on the drop zone.

He had a deep laceration to his neck.

Roberts, an automatic rifleman, died during the training jump over Sicily Drop Zone.

Two separate investigating bodies found different explanations for what happened. Both agree Roberts had an improper exit, but they disagree about what caused the bad exit.

In the Department of the Army's investigation, known as a 15-6, the investigating officer said Roberts' weapons case was protruding due to improper rigging and brushed against the aircraft door as he exited causing a bad exit. The investigation was obtained by The Fayetteville Observer through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In the second investigation, the U.S. Army Safety Center based at Fort Rucker, Alabama, indicated Roberts' ruck sack brushed against the door causing his bad exit. The report hasn't been released publicly, but it was reviewed by an Army official who spoke to the Observer, but was not authorized to comment publicly.

A weak exit

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, released his findings in July: It's clear Roberts had a weak exit that caused him to spin and make contact with the static line, but it's inconclusive whether his weapons case or ruck sack struck the door, contributing to his bad exit.

The Army official familiar with the investigation said Townsend examined both reports before saying what caused the weak exit was inconclusive.

"The commanding general has the ability to review additional evidence to include evidence from other independent investigations that may not be fully available to the unit 15-6 investigator," the source said. "In this case, a separate investigation agreed that a weak exit was the primary cause of this fatal accident, but determined a slightly different sequence of events that caused the weak exit. After reviewing both reports, the commander determined the exact sequence was impossible to know conclusively, and directed that pre-jump training across the 18th Airborne Corps would focus on improving proper door exits made by all paratroopers."

The day after Roberts' death, an investigating officer was appointed to look into what happened and produce the 15-6, which includes witness statements, photographs of Roberts' damaged equipment and findings and recommendations from Townsend.

The initial findings from the Army's report -- dated May 13 -- indicate Roberts' weapons case was protruding due to improper rigging and brushed against the aircraft door as he exited. The improper exit caused the static line to wrap over his left shoulder, strangling him.

Before releasing the initial findings, the investigator watched a video of Roberts' exit taken from inside the aircraft.

Someone took video on a smart phone, and although it was in violation of the airborne standard operating procedures, the investigator said it was "invaluable for investigative purposes."

The video was slowed frame-by-frame and the investigator said when Roberts handed off his static line to the safety, his weapons case was positioned at an improper angle -- nearly horizontal -- as he turned to exit.

The weapons case was horizontal when Roberts moved his left foot toward the door, according to the investigation.

Roberts exited the aircraft backward, with his static line wrapping around his neck. The static line caused a deep laceration that medical experts would later say severed his left interior and external carotid arteries and left internal jugular. His spinal cord was separated resulting in internal decapitation within the first two seconds of exiting the aircraft, according to the report.

The Observer requested a copy of the report by the U.S. Army Safety Center, but it was not turned over by press time.

Another training death

Roberts' death came just 12 days after 19-year-old Pvt. Joshua D. Phillips, of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, died during an airborne training exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The deaths halted airborne training at Fort Bragg until each unit under the 18th Airborne Corps completed a refresher course at the Advanced Airborne School. Airborne operations resumed May 4.

After both deaths, Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander of the 82nd Airborne, issued 18 directives focused on safety of future airborne operations. All of the directives have been completed.

Among those directives, Clarke instructed units to implement a progressive training program to transition inexperienced parachutists to night, combat equipment and mass tactical conditions; direct units to certify jumpmasters and record training on correct rigging and attachment of the weapons case; and direct the Advanced Airborne School to review findings and mark them minor or major deficiencies.

As far as discipline, the jumpmaster team working the pass that Roberts was part of was formally punished by Brig. Gen. Brian Winski, deputy commanding general for operations of the 82nd Airborne Division. The jumpmasters each received a general officer memorandum of reprimand.

The jumpmasters were temporarily suspended and have completed refresher training. Six of those jumpmasters remain on jumpmaster status, while the other three have been moved to other installations and have never again pulled jumpmaster duty, according to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Clarke also noted that units should strictly enforce cellphone discipline during all airborne operations.

In his first directive, Clarke said units should implement a progressive training program to ease novice paratroopers into more challenging jumps.

Roberts, who was making his seventh jump when he was killed, had jumped at night only once.

That was his fifth jump -- at Fryar Drop Zone in Fort Benning, Georgia. He didn't have any of his equipment during that jump.

When he came to Fort Bragg, Roberts jumped at Holland Drop Zone on Feb. 11, 2015. It was a non-tactical jump during the day, according to his jump log that was part of the investigation.

The April 28 jump at Fort Bragg was the first time Roberts jumped at night with his equipment -- a 39-pound ruck sack and a 20-pound weapons case that contained his M4 rifle with magazine and fighting load carrier.

In another directive, Clarke said jumpmasters need to be sufficiently trained on the proper rigging and attachment of the weapons case.

New weapons case

Paratroopers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team were the first paratroopers to begin using this model weapons case in January 2015. It replaced an older weapons case that had been in the Army's inventory since the 1950s.

Paratroopers began receiving instruction on the new weapons case a month prior to the April incident, according to the 18th Airborne Corps.

"This tragic accident occurred during a period of transition from the M1950 parachutist's individual weapons case to the modular airborne weapons case," Townsend said in a statement. "At this time, we have completely transitioned to the (new weapons case). Our airborne units have them in their inventory, and paratroopers continue to receive instruction at the basic airborne refresher course as well as before every single airborne operation."

In the Roberts' incident, his weapons case had three issues: the upper tie down tape was not routed from the bottom to the top, the adjusting strap was not properly secured and the adjustable leg strap wasn't tightened before his exit from the aircraft, according to the investigation.

The leg strap is left loose to allow jumpers to walk more easily into the aircraft, but jumpers are supposed to tighten it on the "Stand Up" command. When tightened, the leg strap limits excessive movement of the weapons case and ruck sack, enabling the proper form for a paratrooper to exit the aircraft, according to the investigation.

"The jumper must tighten down their appropriate adjustable leg straps and secure the excess webbing in the webbing retainer," according to the Airborne Standard Operating Procedures manual. "This is vital and may save their life."

Beyond his own inexperience, investigators found there was no documentation that members of the jumpmaster team -- or current, qualified jumpmasters not on duty that day -- were properly trained to rig and inspect the weapons case.

According to an email dated May 1 from the commander of the Advanced Airborne School, jumpmasters were taught how to rig and inspect weapons cases and paratroopers were taught how to rig and attach weapons cases to themselves. However, the commander said there is no documentation to indicate weapons case training.

"There are no certification documents required to be maintained for this new item of equipment," according to the email. The report redacted the name of the commander, but Maj. Craig Arnold served as the commander of that school from September 2013 to February 2016.

Sustained Airborne Training

Before each jump, paratroopers are required to participate in sustained airborne training, which is when the jumpmaster reviews proper aircraft exits and body position. The jumpmasters will then brief jumpers on mock door and static line control.

Next, jumpers are issued parachutes and one jumper is selected to demonstrate how to properly put on gear.

Roberts volunteered to be part of the demonstration before the April 28 jump.

Jumpers stood around Roberts as jumpmasters affixed his parachute and gear, explaining each piece.

One of the jumpmasters conducting the demonstration asked whether any of the paratroopers watching had never rigged a weapons case before.

"A majority raised their hands, so I gave a class to the whole lift of proper rigging and wear of the (weapons case)," according to the statement from the jumpmaster, which was part of the investigation.

After the demonstration, witnesses said Roberts' weapons case was too low.

Some witnesses said someone pulled Roberts aside to correct the rigging, while other witnesses said the rigging was not corrected, according to the investigation.

Before loading the aircraft, each jumper's gear must be inspected by a jumpmaster.

Even after Roberts' inspection, he asked a female jumpmaster if his weapons case was too low. She said it was correct, according to the investigation.

Paratroopers loaded the aircraft around 9:30 p.m. They were scheduled to jump into Sicily Drop Zone around 10:30 p.m.

The paratrooper who jumped after Roberts remembers seeing his static line was routed correctly over his right shoulder with no slack, according to the investigation.

He saw Roberts rotate on the jumpers platform of the aircraft.

"He ended up exiting backwards, facing toward me in the door," the paratrooper said in his statement to investigators.

The paratrooper said he observed canopies on both sides of him as he descended.

"I did not observe (Roberts) personally in the air, only what was presumably his canopy," according to the paratrooper's statement.

About 90 minutes after paratroopers turned in their parachutes on the drop zone, Roberts was noticeably missing.

A search party was organized and the soldiers split up to comb the drop zone.

One of the paratroopers who was part of the search team said they saw a shadow and moved toward it.

"We immediately yelled for medics," according to the paratrooper's statement. "Spc. Roberts had a large gash in his throat and had obviously expired."

The paratrooper said Roberts' canopy was inflated, but it didn't appear that he had lowered his ruck sack, according to the investigation.

Medics were unable to detect a pulse, according to the investigation.

Fort Bragg Emergency Medical services arrived at the drop zone and declared Roberts had died.

Through an Army spokesman, Roberts' mother declined an interview.

Immediately following his death, Col. Curtis Buzzard, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, called Roberts a "tremendous young man."

Roberts joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2010 as a military police officer and deployed to Afghanistan from March 2011 to January 2012.

He transitioned to active duty in 2014 and was assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in December.

His awards and decorations include the Army Commendation Medal (one oak leaf cluster), the Army Good Conduct Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.

"He had only recently joined us, but he brought with him experience and leadership qualities we seek in our paratroopers," Buzzard said in a statement. "We were all saddened to hear of this tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."

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Army Parachute Jumping