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.
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.
Many of the soldiers interviewed after his death mentioned that Cunningham became distraught when he learned that Ewy had died.
Ewy was killed July 29, 2011, about two weeks before Cunningham took his own life.
Cunningham and Ewy are described in Army documents as “two birds of the same feather,” who spent time together when they were back in the U.S., frequently hunting or just hanging out together.
According to records released by the Army, the day after Ewy was killed in Paktya province by an improvised explosive device, Cunningham pulled another soldier aside to share the news.
The soldier, who is not identified in the report, told Army investigators about the July 30, 2011, encounter with Cunningham. The unidentified soldier also knew Ewy from previous experiences in the Army.
“Upon hearing the news that (Ewy) was a casualty, I became extremely upset because I knew him very well and considered him a friend,” the soldier told investigators.
“This apparently had an effect on (Cunningham) because he began crying a little, too.”
Throughout the report on Cunningham’s death, his relationship with Ewy is continuously discussed by investigators, though nobody interviewed during the inquiry could recall Cunningham displaying any suicidal tendencies.
“Second Lt. Cunningham suffered a very traumatic loss of his close friend, Second Lt. Jered Ewy, who was killed in the line of duty,” the report on Cunningham’s death states.
“Those that knew Second Lt. Cunningham best state that over the last two weeks, (Cunningham) spent a lot of time talking about (Ewy) and how he felt about losing his close friend in combat.”
The report also states that the battalion chaplain had met with Cunningham a week after Ewy had died and that the two had spoken for three hours.
“A large part of the conversation was dealing with the death of Second Lt. Jered Ewy,” the report states.
According to the report on Cunningham’s death, Ewy’s death and the depression that struck Cunningham about this same time “may have played a factor” in the soldier’s death, but it is believed that the stress of a new, more demanding job within the Army and erratic sleeping habits also may have been to blame.
At the time of his death, Cunningham was temporarily staying at a command center in the Laghman province of Afghanistan, though he was awaiting orders to return to his unit in another part of the war-torn nation.
The other soldier whose death was deemed “non-combat,” Spc. Joshua Michael Seals, died Aug. 16, 2011, in Paktya province.
Seals, 21, was shot in the head by another soldier who was cleaning his M4 combat rifle, which is used by many U.S. servicemen.
Small weapons take big toll
Six of the 15 Reserve soldiers from Oklahoma killed in action in Afghanistan were killed by insurgents wielding what the Army describes as “small arms,” a phrase that covers such weapons as handguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Sgt. Anthony Del Mar Peterson was killed Aug. 4, 2011, when an insurgent wearing “local garb” pulled out an AK-47 — which he had concealed beneath his clothing — and “sprayed approximately 30 rounds at three U.S. soldiers,” a report on his death states. Peterson was killed in the Paktya province of Afghanistan.
An unidentified U.S. soldier who was interviewed by Army investigators following Peterson’s death said the man who killed Peterson had just pulled up to the Americans on motorcycle.
“The guy jumped off his bike and stood there in front of us just staring at us for a couple seconds,” the soldier said during his statement to investigators.
“We told the guy he needs to go around to our right so he can get (searched). It was Peterson right in front of him ... We never seen his weapon at all. He just put his finger on the trigger, well, and started shooting starting from the ground up ... just a spray and pray.”
Peterson, 24, was shot in the head and died instantly. Another soldier, who is not identified in the report, was shot in the leg but survived.
After he was fatally shot, one of Peterson’s flares went off and he caught on fire. The unidentified soldier who spoke with Army investigators said he shot the insurgent who killed Peterson “twice in the chest,” but noted that the insurgent disappeared in the chaos.
“I went to Peterson, but I knew he was gone,” the soldier told investigators. “I knew if I spent any time with him, (the other wounded soldier) would die so I had to act quick with him.”
Along with other members of his platoon, Peterson was taking part in a three-day mission to disrupt enemy operations and to clear a site where two U.S. soldiers and five others had been killed by an IED the week before.
The soldiers were conducting a dismounted patrol, meaning they were walking around on foot, away from the limited protection of the vehicles soldiers use as they move from place to place in Afghanistan.
The report on Peterson’s death reveals that he was wearing body armor and protective gloves when he was shot and killed.
Along with Peterson, five other Oklahoma National Guard soldiers were killed when they were attacked by insurgents wielding firearms.