Just after midnight on a warm June night two years ago, a 2 1/2-ton Army truck driven by a Maryland National Guard soldier headed down a dark road in northern Florida, its headlights turned off.
Up ahead, Maj. Andrew Burris, an Army Ranger assigned to evaluate the Maryland Guard's performance in military exercises, was crouched on the dirt road. To the soldiers patrolling in the woods along the road, it sounded as if the truck was moving too fast for the blackout conditions in force because of the war games. As the truck approached, they heard a thump followed by a scream.
The soldiers ran to the road and found Burris, 37, lying in the dirt. His pelvis was crushed, and he had suffered serious internal injuries, but he was alert. He could be saved, but time was critical.
But the chain of errors was only beginning. The soldiers were unable to reach anyone on their radios to send help. When Guard ambulances finally arrived, they lacked basic medical equipment. An Army physician's assistant then misdiagnosed Burris, so he was flown to a hospital that was unequipped to handle trauma.
By then, two hours after being hit, Burris had gone into cardiac arrest and was soon dead.
Today, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge will consider a motion to dismiss a $6 million lawsuit filed by Burris's widow, Karen, accusing the Maryland National Guard of negligence for failing to properly train and equip its soldiers. A similar suit has been filed against the Florida National Guard, which was also involved in the incident. Maryland is claiming immunity under the Feres Doctrine, a Supreme Court ruling from a half-century ago that precludes members of the military from suing over matters incident to service.
Supporters of Karen Burris say a dismissal on legal grounds would galvanize national efforts to challenge the doctrine and hold the military accountable for gross negligence.
"The law has to change on this," said Don Maciejewski, an attorney and former Army officer who is assisting Burris. "This is tantamount to criminal manslaughter."
An Army investigation concluded that the truck was traveling too fast and that the two Maryland guardsmen in it had one pair of night vision goggles to help them see through the dark, but neither of them was using it.
An investigation by the Maryland Guard cleared the guardsmen and said Burris bore responsibility. "Major Burris' death resulted most directly from his lack of situational awareness," Maj. Gen. James Fretterd, adjutant general of Maryland, wrote in response to the Army findings.
Fretterd also blamed cuts in military spending. "As resources continue to diminish, so too does the Army National Guard's ability to safely train," Fretterd wrote. " . . . As this case demonstrates, it may contribute to the degradation of our safety standards with catastrophic results for our soldiers."
Fretterd's contention drew a stinging rebuttal from a senior Army officer, Gen. David Bramlett, then commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command.
"I am absolutely unwilling to attribute the death of Maj. Burris, in any manner, to a resourcing decision," Bramlett wrote. "I was, quite frankly, dismayed by your letter's suggestion. . . . We must never accept the proposition that a lack of resources in some way permits our soldiers to be placed at unnecessary risk in their training."
For Karen Burris, 38, the death of her husband has spurred a quest to hold the Maryland and Florida National Guards responsible. "Andy walked into a time bomb," she said. "I don't want anything more than proper accountability."
Andy Burris was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in June 1997 after a service at the Fort Myer chapel, the same place he and Karen had been married nine years earlier.
They had been best friends since they were 12 years old, when the Burris family settled in McLean after Burris's father's CIA postings to Vietnam and Latin America.
Burris attended Virginia Military Institute and found his calling as a soldier. In Berlin, he commanded the last platoon to guard Rudolf Hess at Spandau; in Korea, he patrolled the DMZ; during the Persian Gulf War, he was among the first U.S. troops to reach the Euphrates River.
"If you ever wondered where the decisive point on the battlefield was, you needed only locate Andy, because he'd be there," said Lt. Col. Daniel Allyn, Burris's commander.
"He was one of the people we needed in the Army," said his father, Dudley Burris, a retired CIA officer living in McLean. "He knew its faults, but he did the best he could to make it better."
Through the years, Andy Burris stayed in touch with Karen McManus.
"Then he came back from those beautiful places and married me," she said. Their daughter, Allison, was born in 1993, and she was the apple of her father's eye. "He adored her," said Karen Burris. "Here he was this hard-core soldier, and he was the absolute best dad."
At Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was serving as a battalion executive officer with the elite 82nd Airborne, Burris often worked late into the night. But he always broke away in the evening to bathe Allison and read bedtime stories.
Burris was sent to Camp Blanding southwest of Jacksonville in June 1997 to evaluate Maryland Guard troops during their annual summer training.
On the night of June 12, Burris accompanied a patrol assigned to attack a Florida Guard platoon. The Maryland troops headed out at 10 p.m. and walked along a dirt road, with soldiers spread in the woods.
Back at a troop support area, the Maryland Guard dispatched a truck at midnight to pick up another patrol whose exercise had been canceled. Drivers had complained that they could not see well because of blackout conditions at night, according to the Army investigation conducted by officers from the 82nd Airborne. Platoon leaders had authorized assistants riding with the drivers to use night vision goggles--called NODs or NVGs by soldiers.
But as the truck driven by Spec. Gregory S. Headly headed down the road, the goggles sat unused in the lap of the assistant driver, Spec. Submas C. Singh, who had not been trained to use them.
Up ahead, the patrol accompanied by Burris halted shortly after midnight to reconnoiter. Burris stayed on the road by himself, observing the patrol. Soldiers could see him crouching and peering through his NVGs.
A few minutes later, the soldiers heard a truck approaching and believed it was coming fast--probably at 25 to 30 miles per hour, according to their statements, well above the camp limit of 5 mph under blackout conditions. "The whine of the engine indicates that it wasn't going what I thought would have been a safe speed down a dark roadway, even with NODs on," a soldier said.
Burris stayed in the road. Maryland Guard officials suggest he dozed off. Some soldiers at the scene say the major probably assumed the driver was wearing NVGs and could see him. For whatever reason, he did not move.
"I heard the truck come down at a high rate of speed," a soldier told investigators. "We heard a big thump, and he continued on driving, and that's when Major Burris started screaming."
The truck turned around. At the scene, a sergeant angrily confronted Headly: "Wait a minute. You're driving down the road, in the dark, and you didn't have your NODs on your face?"
Soldiers tried radioing higher headquarters and other locations to get a helicopter to evacuate Burris but were unable to reach anyone. They were unsure what frequency to use. Finally a runner was sent for an ambulance.
Company headquarters sent a helicopter but failed to relay the location or the condition of the patient. The helicopter landed three miles from the accident site and was of no use.
At the scene, a guardsman trained as an emergency medical technician checked Burris. There was no sign of a severe head injury, and his pulse was good, but there were troubling signs. When he pushed on Burris's pelvis, the EMT could see pain register on the major's face. Burris's abdomen felt tight, a sign of possible internal bleeding.
Thirty minutes went by. There was no ambulance. "His pulse kept getting weaker and weaker," the EMT said.
Burris was becoming combative. "Where's my legs?" he asked, reaching down. The soldiers realized that Burris's circulation was shutting down and that he was going into shock.
At 12:45 a.m., a half-hour after Burris had been hit, a Florida Guard ambulance arrived. It lacked basic equipment to treat trauma. There was no cervical collar or litter straps to secure Burris. Scissors, glucose and needles were missing.
"I kept hollering for supplies, and they said, 'We don't have that much,' " another EMT at the scene told investigators.
A second ambulance showed up five minutes later, also missing critical supplies. The medics finally cobbled together enough equipment to load Burris and left the scene at 1:05 a.m., 50 minutes after the accident. "It took us so long to get him in the ambulance," an EMT said. "You expect an ambulance that's going to be out in the field to be completely stocked. No silly games."
At 1:17 a.m., the ambulance arrived at the camp clinic, where a physician's assistant, an Army reservist, did a quick assessment. Although the autopsy later found tire tread marks on Burris's thigh, the physician's assistant noticed no injuries other than a bloody nose and a large bruise on his right abdomen.
A secondary assessment--which should have been performed--would have revealed the pelvic fracture and the likelihood of internal bleeding, investigators concluded. Burris then would have been evacuated to University Medical Center, Jacksonville's trauma center.
Instead, the physician's assistant sent him to a Jacksonville Navy hospital that was not equipped to treat major trauma. When he called to alert the Navy hospital, an irate doctor told him the hospital could not handle major trauma.
"I'm sorry sir, but he's on his way," the physician's assistant replied. The doctor asked that the helicopter be diverted to University.
The helicopter took off at 1:41 a.m., and by the time Camp Blanding radioed to divert it, the aircraft was no longer monitoring the camp's frequency. "I believe there should have been a better effort to contact us once we were airborne and divert us," the pilot said. "We would have saved 30 minutes, at least."
When the helicopter landed at the naval hospital pad at 1:51 a.m., no one was waiting. Nobody notified an ambulance to meet the helicopter until it was on the ground, and eight more minutes were lost.
About this time, Burris went into cardiac arrest and the arriving ambulance crew started CPR. But instead of rushing him to the emergency room, the crew reloaded him onto the helicopter. The earlier effort to divert the aircraft was misconstrued, and the crew thought Burris should now be flown to University, even though he was in cardiac arrest.
The helicopter left the naval hospital at 2:15 a.m. and landed at University seven minutes later. Burris was unloaded from the aircraft and taken to the emergency room, where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 2:28 a.m.
The grief felt by Andy Burris's relatives turned to anger as they learned the details. "This one obviously did not have to happen," Dudley Burris said.
The 82nd Airborne's investigation found that mistakes by all units involved meant that the trauma center "was not given an opportunity to attempt to save [Burris's] life." It also concluded that the truck was operating at an unsafe speed and recommended that Maryland consider filing charges against the driver. It further recommended that charges be considered against the assistant driver for not telling the driver to slow down and for not using NVGs.
The Maryland Guard declined to recommend charges. Headly and Singh denied that their truck was going too fast. Fretterd wrote in response to the Army report that "there is no credible evidence" of speeding. He added that it was "prudent" for the guardsmen not to wear NVGs because they had not been trained to use them.
Fretterd's letter drew an incredulous reply from Bramlett, who said he was "most concerned" by the response. Bramlett urged Fretterd to reexamine the matter. But Guard officials say that the matter is closed and that appropriate reprimands have been issued.
No one in the Florida Guard was punished. The physician's assistant who misdiagnosed Burris was reprimanded and given new training.
Last November, Karen Burris wrote a letter to President Clinton. Her husband, she said, "was a consummate soldier and would proudly have given his life for his country, but not to the negligence of the Maryland and Florida National Guards."
She has sold her house in McLean and is moving tomorrow with Allison to a new home in Georgia. "I've lost my anchor in life," she said. "Everywhere I go here, I would see things that were our life, and it's not there anymore."
CAPTION: Karen Burris and her daughter, Allison, with the flag that draped the coffin of Maj. Andrew Burris.
CAPTION: A series of errors led to the 1997 death of Army Maj. Andrew Burris, 37, who was struck by a truck driven by a member of the Maryland National Guard.