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

May 29, 1988|MOLLY MOORE | The Washington Post

MANITOWISH WATERS, Wis. — 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.

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