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Records reveal details of Oklahoma soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan

A memorial unveiled last month in Norman provided some details about the 15 reserve soldiers killed in action during the war on terrorism. Records provided by the U.S. Army shed even more light on these deaths, some of them nothing short of tragic.
by Andrew Knittle Published: April 21, 2014

A memorial unveiled last month in Norman at the Armed Forces Reserve Center honors the 15 members of the Oklahoma National Guard who have been killed in action during the war on terrorism.

Small plaques, with photographs of the fallen soldiers in action and as they pose in their uniforms, include biographical information about the woman and 14 men in the group.

The plaques tell visitors to the sprawling center in Norman where the soldiers were from, when they were born, whether they had a spouse or children when they died and where they were trained to carry out their duties within the U.S. Army, among other facts unique to each soldier.

The day of the soldiers’ death also is recorded. A general description of the manner in which they were killed, most often by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, is included, as well.

Of the 15 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers killed during the war on terrorism, seven of them were killed by IEDs. Six were killed by what the Army routinely describes as “small arms fire,” and two were killed in accidents deemed “non-combat.”

But investigative reports prepared by the U.S. Army after the death of all soldiers killed while deployed, reveal just how tragic, terrifying and heroic the final moments of these soldiers can be.

And none of them seem more tragic — or random — than the death of Pfc. Sarina Nicole Butcher, who was killed Nov. 1, 2011, when the truck she was riding in was struck by an IED.

According to Army records, Butcher was killed Nov. 1, 2011, after she was ordered to sit in the “trail gun truck” of a five-vehicle convoy headed to another part of Afghanistan.

A soldier interviewed by Army investigators after Butcher’s death revealed just how random and tragic the young woman’s death really was.

According to the soldier, who is not identified but appears to be a commanding officer of some kind, Butcher was supposed to be in another part of Afghanistan and that he was having her taken to that location.

He said he had to check a manifest to “find an open seat” for Butcher.

“There was only one open seat in my truck. So, the lead gun truck ... and the trail (gun truck) were the least crowded, so I made the decision to put her in (the trail gun truck), because in my experience, since I have been here, the trail gun truck was rarely hit,” the soldier told investigators.

According to the soldier’s statement, the convoy Butcher was riding in had been traveling for about two hours when the trucks stopped just outside of a village so one of the vehicles could secure a chain it had been dragging.

“We had only been stopped a few seconds ... which leads me to believe that the (trail gun truck) was still rolling and coming to the end of the convoy ... when I heard the explosion of the IED,” the soldier told investigators.

“I had just rounded a corner and had no visibility of the blast or the site due to the mountain being in the way.”

When the soldier did approach the site of the blast, he saw the truck Butcher had been riding in turned upside down. A large hole in the ground, captured later by Army investigators armed with digital cameras, left no doubt about where the IED had detonated.

“I dismounted and jogged up to the truck, and the first thing I saw was Butcher pulled off to the side of the road with her body armor pulled over her head to cover her as best as possible,” the soldier said during his statement, which was taken four days after the IED blast.

“I knew she was dead.”

According to reports of the scene, Butcher was found 10 feet from the truck she had been riding in.

Another soldier honored at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Norman last month, Spc. Christopher Drew Gailey, was riding in the same truck as Butcher. He also was killed that day.

Gailey, of Collinsville, left behind a wife and daughter. He had enlisted in the National Guard in June 2004.

In death, Butcher became the youngest member of the Oklahoma National Guard to be killed in action during the war on terrorism. She also is the first woman to be killed in action during wartime.

Butcher, of Checotah, left behind a daughter, Zoey.

‘Non-combat’ deaths

Of the 15 Oklahoma Reserve soldiers killed in action during the war on terrorism, two of them died in what the Army describes as “non-combat related accidents.”

One of those soldiers, 2nd Lt. Joe Lee Cunningham, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, though the story of his death appears to be far more complex than many of the other Oklahoma reserve soldiers killed in action during the war on terrorism.

According to a copy of Cunningham’s AR 15-6 report, Cunningham, 27, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, which is not typical of those who commit suicide.

In a report on Cunningham’s death, an Army investigator wrote that he believed Cunningham’s death to be accidental.

“I ... believe he intended only to injure himself, and not to take his own life,” the investigator wrote.

Cunningham’s death in a private latrine seems to be connected to the death of another Reserve soldier, 2nd Lt. Jered Wayne Ewy.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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