DARBY — Last June, a 20-year-old soldier training to be a Green Beret died during an exercise near Fort Bragg, N.C. The Army said Norman "Ehren" Murburg III was bitten by a 39-inch water moccasin on his left hand.
He died alone, 400 yards from his next checkpoint. His body was found the next day.
The snakebite story never made sense to his father, Mike Murburg. His son grew up outdoors on their rambling 5 acres in Darby, a rural area in northern Pasco County. He hunted, fished. He knew all about snakes.
But the Army said snakebite, and, back then, Mike trusted the Army.
Then, just a few weeks ago, an officer from Special Forces and an investigator came to Mike's home.
They said maybe the cause of death wasn't a snakebite after all. But they didn't know what it was.
Mike, a Tampa lawyer and Princeton grad whose own father had been a Navy frogman in World War II, rose from the couch. How could the Army get this wrong? Almost a year after Ehren died — a year filled with nightmares about snakes — the family was back where it started, twisting in grief. But now, the fog of shock had lifted and in its place was bitter anger.
"Excuse me,'' Mike said, "but I think my son should be present for this discussion.''
He walked to his bedroom and returned with an urn of ashes — some of Ehren's remains.
Mike, a bear of a man at 6 feet 5 inches, placed the urn on the coffee table in front of the men sitting on his sofa.
He sat back down.
• • •
The 10-hour mission began at 1 a.m. on June 9, 2008. It had been scheduled for daytime, but was pushed into darkness because of a record-breaking heat wave in North Carolina. Four days of 100-degree and higher weather. The National Weather Service warned people to stay indoors.
Private First Class Murburg, 6-4, 210 pounds, blond, green-eyed and athletic, only months earlier had been an anthropology major at the University of Florida and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. But life there felt empty to him. He didn't want to talk about making the world better, he wanted to do it. So he enlisted in the Army.
On the day of the training exercise, he joined a hundred other Special Forces candidates in the densely wooded and swampy Hoffman Training Area. They navigated their way to checkpoints. Some of the areas were impenetrable. The candidates were told to wear safety glasses as they waded through the thick, scratchy brush. But this was Ehren's element, his turf. Two weeks before this test, he scored in the top 1 percent of his class in physical fitness.
Murburg made his first checkpoint at 7 a.m. Witnesses said he seemed fine. He got more water and took off.
He was last seen at 9:15 a.m. It was already 90 degrees outside.
The army's investigation would conclude that some time after that, he removed his pack by a small pond. He left it there and walked up a slight hill 70 meters to a dirt road. All the candidates had been instructed to get to the nearest roadway in case of trouble and to signal for help.
He sat down, his back against a dead tree that looked like barbed wire shooting up to the sky.
When he did not arrive at the final checkpoint at 11 a.m., soldiers went looking for him. They found him the next morning against the tree, slumped over his rifle. Two of his canteens were nearly full, the Army said.
He had not activated his emergency GPS locator, nor did he use his emergency flares.
That night — June 10 — a neighbor in Darby called to say Mike's dog had gotten out of the gate. When Mike went outside to fetch him, he saw a green sedan in his driveway. "Is my son okay?" he asked the men, who silently approached him.
"Are you the father of Private Norman Murburg III?"
Mike invited them inside.
Then they began:
"We regret to inform you ..."
• • •
Ehren was buried at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell on June 19. Soon after, his family went to Fort Bragg for a memorial service. They saw where Ehren died. The grass was still matted where Ehren's body was found. Mike said he later met an agent investigating the case who saw Ehren at the scene and thought, "We've lost another one to dehydration."
Later that summer, the Army came back to Darby to deliver Ehren's car and belongings, each one itemized. An unreadable Walgreens receipt from his wallet. Underwear, tan, size 34. A black ink pen. A blue Bible. A single white sock. Mike, who is 53, said the Army people held up each item and asked him to examine it before he signed for it. Then they checked it off their list.
"Each one was like a punch to the gut," he said.
In September, Special Forces said the investigation was done. Ehren had been dead three months.
The family was debriefed in a conference room at Mike's law office. There were so many people in uniform there that Mike had to bring in more chairs.
He was handed the autopsy report. It said Ehren died from a snakebite. He had scratches on the top of his left hand that the Army concluded were bite marks.
Then came the Power Point presentation, showing a snake that was found near the mud hole where Ehren left his pack. Its venom sacs were empty, as well as its stomach.
Mike was in no mood to argue with the Army's conclusion. His grief was numbing, paralyzing.
The cause of death made headlines. Mike and his daughter Erica, 23, talked with reporters and then thought they were done. But a few weeks later, Mike got a call from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command — otherwise known as CID. Called the FBI of the Army, these agents — some military, some civilian — investigate all soldier deaths.
Their agents would be flying to Tampa to pick up the documents Special Forces had left with the Murburgs.
"The investigation is not over," Mike said he was told. He got the feeling CID wasn't convinced about the stated cause of death.
• • •
Soon after, Mike got another call from the Army, this time from a casualty assistance officer. She said some of Ehren's organs had been kept for additional testing. What did Mike want done with them?
He felt sick, imagining his son's heart, brains and lungs floating in jars of formaldehyde on some bleak lab shelf.
"Cremate them," he said.
The remains arrived at Tampa with full military pomp, just as Ehren's body had. Mike was asked if he wanted to meet the soldiers with the urn on the tarmac. "No," he said. He did that once and he wasn't doing it again.
• • •
Even though Mike and Erica knew about the CID investigation, they became obsessed with the snakebite finding.
Erica works in her dad's law office and together, they became self-taught experts. Medical terms like "envenomation" roll off their tongues.
"With potent venom, if you get bit straight into a vein, it could kill you," Erica said.
The description of scratches on Ehren's hand didn't fit with the snakebite images Mike and Erica found online. "After five hours of being bitten, you have chunks of flesh falling off," Mike said.
Snakes invaded their consciousness. Erica had a panic attack while walking in the woods with her fiance. She thought there were snakes everywhere. For Valentine's Day, her fiance bought her tall, thick boots so she would feel safe outdoors. Mike — who raised Ehren and Erica on his own after he and their mother divorced — made sculptures of what he was feeling. He created an underworld beast with a serpent's tail and trapped souls inside its belly.
If his son was bitten by a snake, Mike thought, maybe he was to blame. A few days before Ehren died, Mike had killed a water moccasin on his property and put it in a freezer. He wondered if he had angered some gods who sent vengeance upon his son.
He couldn't sleep. His health was crumbling. He wanted to escape. In April, he went to Ukraine by himself for two weeks. He sought solitude by the Black Sea. It worked, he said. He felt peace.
When he got home, Erica told him she had heard from CID. They were done with their investigation and were ready to discuss their findings.
• • •
The Special Forces officer and the CID agent sat on a sofa. It was the afternoon of May 1, a Friday. Mike sat in a large chair facing them. They said they didn't know what happened to Ehren.
Mike said he was told Ehren could have died from heat stroke and dehydration. He could have had an undiagnosed heart condition.
Or it could have been a snakebite.
They couldn't say. They never did a blood test to check for snake venom, the Murburgs said. When the family asked why it wasn't done, Erica said they were told, "We didn't have the funds." The samples would have been sent to a facility in Miami, which would have been expensive.
"This makes no sense," she said later. "It's like saying someone died from getting bitten with an animal with rabies but not doing a rabies test."
The investigators said they found out Ehren had an abnormal EKG reading, but could not say when the test was taken, what it said, or whether the results would have kept him out of Special Forces.
The family said they asked for a copy of the amended autopsy, but the investigators wouldn't hand it over. The Murburgs would need to get that and other information through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"How are we supposed to ask intelligent questions without being able to read the autopsy first?" Mike said.
The whole meeting sent the family spinning. In the beginning, they didn't know how Ehren had died. Then they got an answer, but the answer didn't make any sense.
Now they had no answer at all.
"Do you have anything else to tell me?" Mike asked.
The officer and the agent said nothing.
"Then I think this meeting is over," said Mike, who still shook their hands as they left.
• • •
The autopsy report was sent a week later, without the need for an FOI request. Dr. Timothy Monaghan, chief deputy medical examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, wrote a letter of apology to Mike. He said the family should have been given a copy of the autopsy report before the CID investigators paid their visit.
"In my experience, this has never happened before and I profoundly regret that this simple courtesy was not extended to you, given the supreme sacrifice your family has made."
Although the Murburgs have been debriefed, the CID investigation is not officially closed, said Christopher Grey, chief of public affairs for CID. Grey said he could not discuss the case, though he did say it is normal procedure to ask families to submit FOI requests for documents. It's hard to know what information families want. "Some don't want any at all," he said. The documents and photographs can be emotionally brutal.
Mike has put in a request for his son's case — and for photos of Ehren's hands, to see for himself what the marks looked like. He's having them sent to his sister and brother-in-law, who are doctors, because if he had to look at them it "would undoubtedly kill me."
For Ehren's case, Grey said, "We don't suspect any type of foul play."
Neither does Mike. He believes Ehren probably died of heat stroke and dehydration or some kind of heart condition. He is working with his sister and her husband to get any tissue samples the Army might still have so they can do their own independent tests. He plans to exhume Ehren's body to see if tests can be done with his remains — and to also put the ashes of his organs to rest with his body.
He wants answers and hopes that if any are found, they can be used to help other soldiers.
Mike doesn't want to feel this bitterness toward his own country's military. He writes poems to work through his grief. After his son died he wrote of the Army being Ehren's family, of loving him as their own child. Mike's latest poem is titled, "Bull----."
I tried to believe their story.
I wanted to, but could not.
It was a lie.
He saved two voice mail messages from Ehren and listens to them often. They comfort him. Lately, his nightmares have ebbed. Now, when Ehren appears in his dreams, he's smiling.
After Ehren died, Mike let his garden die, too. But this year, he's been working in it again, planting, nurturing new life. By the stalks of corn, there is a pole with an American flag at half-staff. The flag flies upside down.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Times researchers Shirl Kennedy, Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this story.