DADE CITY — Four of the Army's top officers left the Pentagon on a jet Thursday morning and headed to Florida to tell a grieving man they were sorry.
The generals — Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff; Colleen L. McGuire, provost marshal general and the Army's highest ranking military police officer; John F. Mulholland Jr., commander of Special Forces; and Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general — arrived at Mike Murburg's rural, 5-acre ranch in the tiny community of Darby in full uniform. Murburg, drenched in sweat, worked outside on his tractor until they showed up. He showered quickly, but did not dress up.
Murburg, a lawyer, had been fighting for this — for a response, for answers — for two years. In June 2008, his 20-year-old son Norman "Ehren" Murburg III died during a Green Beret training exercise near Fort Bragg, N.C. At first, the Army said Ehren died from being bitten on his left hand by a 39-inch water moccasin, which was found near the site, its venom sacks empty. Murburg was shown photos of the snake. He didn't believe it. Ehren, who was an anthropology major at the University of Florida before joining the Army, grew up hunting and fishing. He knew about snakes. When Murburg visited Fort Bragg days after Ehren's death, he said many on site said they thought the death was related to the record-breaking heat wave.
Murburg said he had nightmares about snakes attacking his son as he stood there helpless. Then, a year later, the Army contacted Murburg again, saying maybe Ehren didn't die from snakebite after all. But they didn't know what killed him.
U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, and his wife, Beverly, read a story in the St. Petersburg Times in late May 2009 detailing Murburg's fight for answers. Young said he called Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.
"It seemed like (Murburg) was owed a better explanation of what happened to his son," the veteran congressman said. "Let this man have closure and let's make sure this doesn't happen again."
Young's interest prompted a second investigation.
Chiarelli said the Army sent investigators across the globe, tracking down anyone who was on the training course that day or played a role in the case, interviewing more than 225 people. The death scene was re-examined. Schoomaker's staff pored over medical records. Herpetology experts were consulted.
The generals came to tell Murburg their findings. Their summary report was titled "U.S. Army Investigation into the Death of Pfc. Norman M. 'Ehren' Murburg III and Lessons Learned." Murburg asked the generals to meet with him in his barn loft, an art studio where a portrait of Ehren hung on the wall.
On Thursday, the Youngs arrived at the ranch before the generals. And they sat in on the session.
"I want to offer the condolences of all of us," Chiarelli began.
"Thank you," Murburg said.
"Words can't express how we all feel," Chiarelli said.
After all of the months of investigation, Ehren's death is still a mystery — listed in the "What We May Never Know" section of the report. The surgeon general explained that most people dying because of heat and dehydration become delirious, often taking off their clothes. Ehren did change his uniform — but he rolled up his old one neatly in his rucksack. Many die suddenly, their bodies found in the positions they fell. But Ehren walked up a hill to rest near a tree. He had an abnormal EKG reading while in training — but a normal one right before the mission. His grandfather had a heart condition. The heat and an arrhythmia combined might be the cause.
Chiarelli said, because of Ehren's death, Green Beret candidates no longer will perform this training exercise during the hot summer months unless there are extraordinary circumstances.
"It's been two years," Mrs. Young snapped. "Why two years later are you coming up with this theory? Why now? Why when they said it was a snake bite?"
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Initially, three agencies investigated Ehren's death. Their lack of communication between each other is one thing listed in the "What Went Wrong" section.
Chiarelli said the snake bite theory arose when a doctor, mulling over what could have killed this young, healthy, 6-4, 210-pound man, was mowing his lawn and ran over a mud wasp nest.
That sprang the idea of a wasp or snake — then the water moccasin was found, and what was theory took hold, though Ehren's body was never tested for snake venom.
As the generals spoke, Mrs. Young targeted Capt. Timothy Monaghan, the deputy medical examiner for the U.S. Navy who ruled Ehren's death as by snake.
"Why is that guy still working for the military?" she barked.
No direct response.
"So the medical examiner came up with snake bite?" Mrs. Young said.
"This is a tragedy," Chiarelli said. "The Army is responsible to learn as much as we can" from what happened. He spoke of Ehren's strange death — not quite fitting classic heat stroke.
"Who gave the order to look for a snake?" Mike Murburg asked. "There were no snake bites on his body. That to me stinks. It stinks to high hell of coverup. I'm disgusted with the whole thing."
There was more discussion. Murburg said the excuse he got from the Army on not testing for venom was that it would be too expensive to send it to the correct laboratory in Miami.
"We found no evidence of coverup," Chiarelli said.
The conversation lasted for more than three hours, bouncing from general to general, calm and loud, Murburg and the Youngs asking questions. An urn with Ehren's ashes sat on the table between them. As the conversation continued, Mrs. Young stayed on the snake bite doctor.
"Somebody is going down for this ... This guy is a loose cannon," she said.
Capt. Craig Mallak, chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System who was seated next to the surgeon general, said Monaghan, the doctor, has resigned and will no longer be practicing forensic pathology.
"He is leaving the service this month," Mallak said.
The congressman and his wife left for another appointment. The generals stayed and talked with Murburg for another hour. Murburg wanted to know if his son was in pain when he died. The Army's surgeon general told him no.
Chiarelli outlined the other changes that are happening because of Ehren's death — investigating new tracking systems for candidates, working with cardiologists to see if their medical tests need to be changed, possibly implementing an Army death review board to reduce the lack of communication.
"We've learned a lot and we are trying to put that to good use," he said.
"The fact that you're doing this means everything to me," Murburg said.
The meeting ended and they shook hands.
"We're going to make this right by you," Mallak said to Murburg.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.