Tammy Shrader feared for her son’s safety when he left home to join the U.S. Army. She never expected he would return home from basic training in a casket.
“You’re supposed to be safe in basic, and he wasn’t,” Shrader said of her son, 19-year-old Pvt. Ethan Shrader of Prospect, Tennessee, who was one of two soldiers killed when a truck plowed into a group of recruits marching in formation at Fort Jackson on Oct. 6, 2017.
Shrader’s emotional testimony came Monday during sentencing for the drill sergeant who was driving the truck and fell asleep at the wheel before it ran over the recruits. Pvt. Timothy Ashcraft, 18, of Cincinnati, Ohio, also was killed in the crash, which injured six other soldiers.
A court martial trial for Staff Sgt. Andrew Marrow was set to begin Monday morning; however, Marrow pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide and one count of dereliction of duty. A judge is hearing testimony from witnesses before imposing a sentence, which could include a maximum of 7.5 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
Included in Monday’s testimony were the soldiers who were injured in the crash, family members of Ashcraft and Shrader, other drill sergeants and Marrow himself.
A knock on the door
Tammy Shrader recalled the knock on the door from the two officers informing her that her son died, and watching as the casket carrying his body was unloaded at the airport. The dog tag that bears his name and was hanging on the casket was given to her, and she wore it around her neck in court Monday.
“I haven’t taken it off since they gave it to me,” she said, holding it up. “It feels like all the joy has been drained out of our family. There’s no happiness, no laughter. I cry all the time.”
Steven “Dale” Shrader, Ethan’s older brother, said they wrote letters to each other while Ethan was in basic training at Fort Jackson. In the last letter Steven Shrader sent his brother, he told Ethan he was getting married and asked him to be his best man in the wedding. Hours after Shrader’s family learned of his death, Steven received a letter Ethan had mailed days earlier.
“It was him telling me he would be honored to be my best man at my wedding,” Steven Shrader testified.
Amanda Kassen, Ashcraft’s mother, said she calls her son’s phone just to hear his voice on his voicemail greeting, and looks at the pictures on his Facebook page.
“I’m still waiting for him to call me and say, ‘Hey, Mom, I’m coming home. Come get me from the airport,’” Kassen testified Monday. “I’m still waiting on that call.”
Ethan Shrader’s younger sister has nightmares about a mob of people going to the cemetery and pulling her brother’s remains from the crypt, Tammy Shrader testified.
“She has gone from being a regular kid to she kind of isolates herself from the rest of the family,” Tammy Shrader said.
Rumble of an engine, then ‘Watch out!’
Hannah New was one of the recruits who was seriously injured and testified that before the crash happened, she heard the rumble of an engine and a drill sergeant yell, “Watch out!”
“I could barely turn before it hit me,” New said. “I could feel as I was hit, being tumbled in the wheel with all the other trainees who were hit.”
She was hit by one of the truck’s front wheels and said she was able to move out of the way of the back wheels.
In the chaos after the crash, New said she was “in arm’s reach” of both Shrader and Ashcraft. Her voice crackled with tears as she recalled seeing Ashcraft’s injuries, a drill sergeant pulling a jacket over the dead soldier’s face, and Shrader groaning in pain and calling for his mother.
“I want my mom, I want my mom!” she quoted him as saying. “He just kept saying it over and over.”
New said she was having trouble breathing as the scene unfolded.
“I was just thinking about my son, if I was gonna make it home,” she said.
She spent nine days in the hospital with three liver lacerations, a fractured spine and severe muscle and tissue damage from the crash, she said. She still undergoes physical therapy and sees a psychologist, and has more procedures ahead.
“The older I get, the worse it’s gonna get,” she said of the pain from her injuries.
Nightmares and PTSD
Benjamin Key had a fractured hip from being hit by the truck, but on Monday, he also testified about the lasting mental and emotional damage of that day.
He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and nightmares, and is woken some nights by memories of the sights and sounds from that day.
“I’m hearing Ethan crying for his mom,” he said.
After the crash, Key said he was no longer outgoing, didn’t like being in large groups and couldn’t physically pick up his children. At one point, he contemplated suicide but said he got help for those thoughts.
Key said the effects of the crash have caused his wife to file for divorce and “question my ability to take care of my kids.”
Another injured recruit, Alan Kryszak, has recurring dreams about that day, from the groans and “muffled screams” after the crash to resisting the doctors at the trauma center. Being around large groups after the crash, even his family, could trigger bad memories.
“Seeing that many people all around me at once threw me for a loop,” he said, “like the replay of the accident was gonna start again.”
Grueling schedules and lack of sleep
Earlier Monday morning, Marrow himself choked back tears as he recalled the events leading up to the deadly crash and seeing recruits stuck under the tires of the truck and trailer.
Before the crash, the recruits had been at a range for marksmanship training and were marching in two columns back to company headquarters, Marrow said.
“I was tired from being in the sun and having four hours of sleep,” Marrow said, adding that he nodded off at least twice behind the wheel of the truck, which was hauling a water tank, before the crash. “I was doing everything that I could in my power to stay awake.”
Marrow had the option to pull over and ask to switch driving duties with another drill sergeant, he said.
“I awoke to numerous people screaming and shouting,” he said. His voice broke with tears as he recalled getting out of the truck and seeing Ashcraft and Shrader under the tires of the trailer.
A risk assessment conducted before the road march did not account for drill sergeant fatigue, testified Sgt. First Class Sean Embler, who witnessed the crash. Drill sergeants work grueling 18- to 20-hour days, and even though naps are encouraged, there’s not always time for them, Embler said.
“You’re tired all the time,” he said. “Training, paperwork, being mommies and daddies in the evenings.”
In his testimony, Marrow mentioned driving home after 9 p.m. the night before the deadly crash and talking with his wife and children about their day.
‘One of our best drill sergeants’
Many who took the stand Monday, including the soldiers who were injured, vouched for Marrow and spoke highly of their experiences with him.
“This accident shouldn’t erase all the good that came from drill sergeant Marrow,” said Kryszak, who called Marrow “one of our best drill sergeants.”
Some of the recruits called Marrow “a friendly drill sergeant” because rather than just yell at a recruit for a mistake, Marrow would educate and correct them, said Key.
“I really don’t think that one bad thing should follow a man for the rest of his life,” Key said on the stand.
Suggesting on Monday that she could someday forgive Marrow for her son’s death, Amanda Kassen said on the stand that she was taught not to hate people.
“I didn’t bring Timothy up that way. I taught him to love everybody,” she said. “It’s going to take me a while to forgive, but I will. I won’t forget.”
The defense is expected to continue calling witnesses Tuesday morning.