One year Later

"Life goes on, but no one forgets the crash at Pope."

—Kim Oriole

The Green Ramp survivors found t themselves on an emotional roller coaster over the twelve months since the accident. In attempting to reconcile their lives, they faced difficullt periods of mental and physical adjustment. A few marriages had not weathered the crisis, and those who thought they would return to a military career had to accept the fact that they would not. Some felt angry about what had happened to them, consumed by their emotions and their physical pain. And compounding their pain was the grief they experienced when they thought about their friends who had perished.[1]

Many of the victims, however, were stronger since the accident. They had discovered previously untapped inner resources. Determination and resilience abounded. Some who had been told they would never walk again now were on their feet and back at work. No longer able to be infantrymen, they assumed new military occupational specialties or new careers in the private sector. They established fresh priorities. Families and friendships became more important. Paratrooper support of one another, which had always been good, reached a new high. The Green Ramp disaster had proved that the troops could count on one another in time of need.[2]

The Survivors

In March 1995 the Green Ramp survivors could be seen around Fort Bragg in their battle dress uniforms, going to work. They wore special burn dressings, gloves, and other protective garments. Some awaited follow-up surgeries or attended occupational therapy sessions to get scarred joints and muscles moving again. Twenty-two were still in need of medical treatment.[3]

Lt. Judson "Jay" P. Nelson, Jr., of the 2d Battalion, 504th Infantry, was one of those soldiers. With burns on his back, legs, and hands, he had undergone five skin grafts and ten other surgeries, enduring nearly unbearable pain. The key to his survival was his refusal to quit. "I just grit my teeth and . . . just try to gut it out," recalled Nelson, hoping each time to be able to "just hold on a little bit longer." At age twenty-four, Nelson had to learn again how to walk and how to feed himself. A year later he needed more surgery. "Scar tissue pull[ed] his left thumb back to a strange angle." Cold weather brought on stabbing pains in his hands, and his back and legs itched. No longer able to be a foot soldier, Jay planned to enter law school in the fall and become an Army lawyer. Meanwhile, he volunteered to counsel burn victims in the Fayetteville area.[4]

Spc. Anthony "Tony" B. Davis of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry had lost a left leg and shattered a kneecap as a result of the explosion. He considered himself luckier than the soldiers who were burned. "They're the ones who were really bad," he said. Some of the dead and severely burned troops had been sitting next to him on Green Ramp. Therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center taught him how to walk with a prosthesis. Four or five months passed before he could walk well. Nearly a year after the accident Davis, with his maroon beret cocked to one side, was observed jauntily striding across Fort Bragg with no problem.

Like Davis, Pfc. Jason A. Savell of the 2d Battalion, 504th Infantry, who was burned on over 43 percent of his body, had lost a leg. But his spunk and determination never waned. Twelve months later Savell was active in sports—basketball, racketball, skydiving, and rappelling and had earned his second Green Belt in Tae Kwon Do. He planned to aattend Midwestern State University in Texas in the fall. The accident made him realize that he was not "invincible" and that "life [was] preciious." He had been the last injured soldier to leave the hospital alive.[6]

Near the one-year anniversary of the crash Spc. Juan C. Fender of the 2d Battalion, 159th Aviation, who suffered burns on his back and hands, underwent surgery "to have tissue expanders placed in his back, which [would] hopefully stretch his skin enough to the point where the extra skin [would] be used to cosmetically repair his back." He continued to recceive occupational therapy to increase the strength and movement in hbis hands. Fender chose to leave the Army, return to his native town of Lexington, Kentucky, and become an occupational therapist.[7]

Sergeant Burson during his recovery had decided to pursue what he deemed would be a satisfying career as an occupational therapist. His rehabilitation was steady but slow. He walked with great stiffness, and "his joints 'lock[ed,l] up' in cold weather." Burson continued with therapy at Womack seveeral mornings a week to exercise and strengthen his burned legs and hands, trying to adjust "to his new body." This "new body," he judged, would impede his ability to perform effectively as a unit leader. If he could not do what his troops could do, he would not stay in the Army.[8]

Because of their hospital experience, three 2d Battalion, 504th Infantry, soldiers were similarly inspired as Fender and Burson to enter the medical field after leaving the Army. Spc. John R. Fagan, who underwent a number of major operations during his six-month stay at the Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth, Virginia, was making plans to attend veterinary school; Pfc. Jimmie L. Mabin, a survivor of second and third-degree burns on his body, especially his face and hands, hoped to study nursing; and Spc. Michael P. Fletcher, because of his newly found admiration and respect for the many medics who had helped him to cope, wanted to be a medical professional but was still undecided as to which field.[9]

"The one thing that truly amazed me was that as damaged as all these soldiers were, they recuperated well and bounced back," said Lisa Kelley. "I think that has to do with their mindset and the training they've received." One year after the accident Lisa's husband, Sergeant Kelley, the most severely burned survivor, whom doctors had classified as "wheelchair-bound'" was on his feet and walking. He was receiving physical therapy at Womack to improve movement in his legs and was preparing for the future. No longer able to have a career in the Army Kelley planned to return to college and become a history teacher.

Twelve months after the tragedy the Green Ramp survivors were coping with their mental and physical scars. Although it was difficult to put the crash behind them, they found that they thought about it less and less as time passed. They became more philosophical, believing they had been given a second chance to do something else with their lives. Some casualties retired from the military; some returned to school. Most of the injured, however, stayed in the Army and the 82d Airborne Division.[11]

Effect on Planning

All organizations affected by the Green Ramp tragedy tried to learn from the incident.[12] A review of current mass casualty (MASCAL) reception plans at Fort Bragg and Fort Sam Houston show that improvements were made as a direct result of the Pope Air Force Base accident. Womack's emergency preparedness plan calls for the establishment of a news media site at Fort Bragg's officers club, a crisis intervention/de-stress and discharge area in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, and new critical care pre- and postoperative stations in to-be-determined hospital space, as well as for assistance from other installation medical units. Womack and Cape Fear medical authorities, responding to one of many recommendations, had a dedicated line between their respective emergency rooms installed. During the October 1995 sniper incident, in which eighteen soldiers were injured) three fatally, Womack and Cape Fear medics used the dedicated line to coordinate their emergency response.[13]

Recommendations from Womack's public affairs officer, Margaret Tippy, made shortly after the Pope Air Force Base crash, were also implemented. Public affairs "players" from other Fort Bragg public affairs offices participated in a MASCAL exercise during the summer of 1995—to learn how to handle the news media better. In addition military and civilian public affairs officers in the Fayetteville area created a communications network, using e-mail and fixed and mobile telephones and holding periodic meetings. Improvements in public affairs activities proved highly effective during both the 1995 MASCAL exercise and the sniper incident, reported Tippy.[14]

As a direct result of the disaster on Green Ramp, Fort Bragg produced a response plan for handling mass casualties, which the garrison used during the MASCAL exercise and the sniper incident. The garrison set aside a room for a family assistance center at Gavin Hall, the headquarters of the 82d Airborne Division. Also, the plan calls for the estabhshment of an installation operations center as the chief command-and-control center, with ultimate responsibility for information flow. The XVIII Airborne Corps emergency operations center would continue to be involved in any crisis.[15]

After the mass casualty Fort Sam Houston's and Brooke Army Medical Center's plans, training, mobilization, and security staffs met several times to review the San Antonio area casualty reception plan and Brooke's emergency preparedness plan. At these meetings the issues and concerns identified in various after-action reports were discussed so that the garrison and hospital could fine-tune their standard operating procedures and increase their abilities to manage future disasters. Subsequently, the San Antonio Joint Medical Readmess Committee utilized lessons learned from the Pope Air Force Base crash during the national disaster medical system exercises held in September of 1994 and 1995. The committee also incorporated the lessons learned in a revised casualty reception plan.[16]

General Steele's 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg was already fine-tuning its procedures. Because of the Green Ramp disaster, the division strongly supported the development of its own crisis action plan. The plan would provide for periodic crisis action exercises and the formation of a crisis action team, composed of chaplains, Judge advocates, public affairs officers, medical personnel, and administrative specialists, as well as nongovernmental representatives from, for example, the Red Cross or Army Community Services on an on-call basis. In addition, the plan would formalize standards for memorial services; burial parties, to include unit representation; wills and beneficiaries; panographic dental records; and insurance coverage. The division commander and his crisis action team would train both casualty and survivor assistance officers to be ready to execute their duties during a crisis. These officers must be prepared to answer three key questions asked by nearly all casualties: How are my friends, comrades, buddies, and so forth? Is anyone looking out for my family? How do I communicate with God?[17]

One year after the disaster on Green Ramp the survivors were getting on with their lives. Their memories still stirred strong emohons, though the weight of the tragedy and the feeling of shock had lessened.

General Shelton, the XVIII Airborne Corps commander, and Maj. Gen. George Crocker, General Steele's successor, jointly decided not to hold a memorial service each year on 23 March. Although the corps, division, and garrison would never forget the tragedy, Shelton and Crocker believed that the best way to honor both victims and survivors was to incorporate the lessons learned from the disaster and the Army's response to it into standard operating procedures and find ways reduce the risks as the All Americans train for and execute their demanding, often perilous missions.[18]


[1] Katherine McIntire Peters, "Surviving: Here's How It's Done," Army Times, 27 Mar 95, pp. 10-12.

[2] "Crash Survivors Carry On With Lives After Pope Tragedy," Paraglide (Fort Bragg, N.C.), 23 Mar 95, p. 1A.

[3] Ibid.

[4] First two quotations as given in Peters, "Surviving," p. 10; third quotation fiom Larry Bingham and Kim Oriole, "A Battle To Survive," Fayetteville Observer-Times, 29 Jan 95, p. 7A.

[6] As quoted in Kim Oriole, "Life Goes On," Fayetteville Observer-Times, 23 Mar 95, p. IA.

[7] "One Year Later Four Paratroopers Tell About Survival," Paraglide (Fort Bragg, N.C.), 23 Mar 95, p. 6B.

[8] As quoted in Peterrs "Surviving," Army Times, 27 Mar 95, p. 11. See also Interv, Mary Ellen Condon-Rall with Sgt Christopher J. Burson, Sgt Jacob T. Naeyaert, Jr., and Spc Michael P Fletcher, 2 Aug 95 (hereafter cited as Burson, Naeyaert, and Fletcher Interv).

[9] "One Year Later," p. 6B; Burson, Naeyaert, and Fletcher Interv, 2 Aug 95. Fletcher was promoted in September 1994.

[10] As quoted in Jeanine M. Duhnicka, "Soldier Defeats Death," Paraglide (Fort Bragg, N.C.), 23 Mar 95, pp. 1B-2B.

[11] "Crash Survivors Carry On," p. 1A.

[12] The Air Force conducted its own investigation into the causes of the Pope Air Force Base crash. The study identified "multiple causes for the midair collision, faulting air traffic control for the "majority of errors." Although the pilot was partly to blame because he did not "see and avoid and stay well clear of the mishap C-13O," as required by Air Force regulations, there were extenuating circumstances. The pilot testified that he did not see the C-130; however, after the control tower had made him aware of its presence, he began executing a low approach, when the collision occurred. Two Air Force officers involved in the crash were relieved of duty and transferred to other Jobs. Three enlisted men also were disciplined. See Rpt, Col (USAF) Vincent J. Santillo, Jr, n.d., sub: Aircraft Accident Investigation.

[13] Womack Army Medical Center, Contingency Operations Planning and Execution ystem (COPES), vol. 3, Emergency Preparedness Plan (Fort Bragg, N.C., 1996), pp. C-1-1 to C-1-3.

[14] Telephone Interv, Mary Ellen Condon-Rall with Margaret Tippy, 27 Nov 95.

[15] Telephone Intervs, Mary Condon-Rall with Margaret Tippy, 27 nov 95, and with Joseph Hibst, 29 Nov 95. Colonel Jones was formally Womack's deputy commander for clinical services. Hibst was Fort Bragg's director of plans, training, mobilization, and security.

[16] Telephone Interv, Mary Ellen Condon-Rall with Lt Col Gerald Nolan, 28 Nov 95. Nolan, Brooke's inspector general, was formerly the Plans, Training, Mobllizatlon, and Security Division chief.

[17] Telephone Interv, Brig Gen John W. Mountcastle with Maj Gen William M. Steele, 10 Jan 96. In February 1996 the defense authorization bill provided for increased coverage of the servicemen's group life insurance to the maximum of $200,000. Soldlers would have to request less coverage in writing. See Bernard Adelsberger, "Coverage With SGLI Is Hiked," Army Times, 12 Feb 96.

[18] Telephone Interv, Brig Gen John W. Mountcastle with Maj. Gen. George Crocker, 5 Sep 95.

page updated 30 May 2001

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