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Airman's Death During SERE Training Ruled Accidental

Airman 1st Class Kenneth Sturgill of Livermore, California (Air Force Photo)
Airman 1st Class Kenneth Sturgill of Livermore, California (Air Force Photo)

The death of an airman going through the Air Force's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training last summer in Texas has been ruled an accident, according to a recent investigation from Air Education and Training Command.

Airman 1st Class Kenneth Sturgill of Livermore, California, died July 7, 2016, during SERE training at Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis, as a result of heatstroke, AETC officials said Tuesday.

"Airman Sturgill was found unresponsive at the end of a six-hour solo living exercise," officials said in a release. "Based on his condition at initial discovery and on post-mortem examination, the report determined Airman First Class Kenneth Sturgill's death to be accidental, caused by heatstroke (hyperthermia)," the release said.

Sturgill was on the 14th of 15 training days, according to the Ground Accident Investigation Board Report, headed by Col. Jeffrey Fallesen. The service said instructors conducted "multiple safety checks" throughout the day and had found him "not to be in distress."

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That same day, instructors found that another service member showed signs of "heat exhaustion," the investigation report said. "As a result … instructors provided each Candidate with an additional five-gallon jug of water, dropping the water off at about 1615 [local time]," or 4:15 p.m.

"The Candidate of Concern [Sturgill] verbally acknowledged receipt of the water, but did not have face-to-face contact with the instructors," the report said.

About an hour and twenty minutes later, instructors conducted a final check but were unable to locate Sturgill. The SERE specialist screening course flight chief initiated lost student protocol soon after.

Around 6:40 p.m. local time, a search team found Sturgill in a "brush pile on the extreme edge of his assigned training area," the report said

When he was found, "his body temperature was 112 [degrees] Fahrenheit," it said.

Attempts by both military and civilian medical personnel were made to revive him, but "proved unsuccessful." Sturgill was pronounced dead on the scene at 7:09 p.m.

Fallesen said Sturgill also could have suffered from a medical condition known as hyponatremia, or what he described as "low plasma sodium or depleted body sodium."

Hyponatremia is diagnosed as a low concentration of sodium in the blood, which could lead to disorientation. The condition "may have been a contributing factor to the [Sturgill's] death," he wrote.

However, Fallesen noted there is "insufficient evidence to reach that conclusion by a preponderance of the evidence."

Sturgill had completed Air Force Basic Military Training on June 3. He began the SERE Specialist Training Orientation Course, or SST-OC -- which is a first-step staple for all SERE specialists -- on June 20.

"Prior to this, the course had no fatalities," AETC said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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