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Ill-Trained to Survive Heat : Marine's Death in Desert: Mistakes Led to Tragedy

December 27, 1988|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — 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."

Courts-Martial Pending

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

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