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The fiancee of a Fort Liberty soldier who died while in training at drill sergeant school in South Carolina is mourning his death, while questioning what happened.
During a June 14 news conference, Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, Fort Jackson’s commander, said Sgt. 1st Class Jaime Contreras was in his eighth week of a 10-week drill sergeant candidate course at Fort Jackson when he “went missing during land navigation training.” He was posthumously promoted to sergeant first class, officials said.
Contreras, 40, of Las Vegas, Nevada, was found unresponsive about nine hours after failing to return from the June 12 course and later died, Fort Jackson officials said.
Land navigation is an Army course in which soldiers use compasses, maps and other tools to navigate terrain.
Contreras was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Division Artillery, according to a Fort Jackson news release.
A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division said Contreas was still assigned to the division and was attending the Drill Sergeant Academy at the time of his death.
Fort Jackson officials say the cause of Contreas’ death is under investigation.
On Tuesday, Contreras’ fiancee, Erin Kern, said Contreras was a sous chef in Las Vegas when he decided to join the Army more than a decade ago at the age of 28 to give his children “stability.”
Contreras had 12 years of service and has served with the 82nd Airborne Division since January 2014 as a food service operations noncommissioned officer and advanced culinary NCO, according to Tuesday’s news release.
Contreras was a father of eight children and one grandchild, Kern said.
The couple met in 2021, a time when Kern was undergoing treatment for stage III uterine cancer.
“The moment I fell in love with him was the first time he stayed late watching movies, and I said ‘I’m going to be honest with you I’m getting uncomfortable.’”
Kern told Contreras that because of her cancer treatment, she had to wear “diapers.”
Contreras, Kern said, came out of the bathroom a few minutes later wearing one himself.
“He was just the sweetest person ever,” she said. “He was such a caregiver.”
Kern said Contreras cooked dinner each night and always played the radio and danced to Van Morrison when cooking.
Kern said she and Contreras texted daily throughout their relationship.
“I’m going to miss his good morning texts,” she said. “He didn’t text like normal people and just say good morning. He’d say ‘Good morning my love, you are my peace and comfort.’ He’d sent the most elaborate beautiful texts.”
The morning of his death, Kern said, Contreras sent an early morning text and when she responded back at about 8:30 a.m., he liked the message.
That was her final communication with him.
Kern said that at about 6 p.m. June 12 she was at work and noticed missed calls from “weird phone numbers,” and finally answered after noticing a message from the Army Criminal Investigation Division.
Kern said investigators asked if she’d spoken to or seen Contreras.
“I was confused because he was three hours away,” she said. “I was like, ‘What is this about?’ and was not given a lot of information.”
Kern said she was finally told that Conteras had been missing for hours after not returning from the land navigation course.
She said she was under the initial impression that investigators thought Contreras was absent without leave, which Kern said was not his character.
“I told them he’s not depressed or any of those things,” Kern said.
A few hours later Kern would learn that Contreas was dead.
During the June 14 news conference, Kelly said Contreras was expected to complete the land navigation course by 1 p.m.
When Conteras did not return, drill sergeant leaders notified the Academy’s commandant and Fort Jackson Emergency Services, Kelly said.
More than 100 personnel, including members of the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and other law enforcement partners assisted in the search, officials said.
Kelly said the site where the land navigation course is conducted spans about 1,500 acres.
Contreras was found about 50 meters outside the boundaries of the course, said Maj. John Ferrell, director of Fort Jackson’s Directorate of Emergency Services.
A drill sergeant who spoke during the June 14 news conference said that about 98 candidates were part of Contreras’ class and that candidates trained on the land navigation course in teams three days before attempting the June 12 individual challenge.
Ferrell said it’s not uncommon for someone to wander off course.
“However, that is very unforgiving terrain,” he said.
Kelly said the Army Criminal Investigation Division is investigating the death.
“We do not know the cause of his deviation, if any, on the course or the cause of death,” Kelly said.
The search for Contreas started at about 2 p.m. and he was found at about 11:30 p.m.
Ferrell said while there were ground and air searches, officials asked Conteras’ cellphone provider to ping his phone to help pinpoint his location.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Staff Sgt. Contreras,” Kelly said at the news conference. “We are providing support to his family and teammates during this difficult time and will continue to do so.”
No updates for fiancee
Kern said that since Contreras was found, the Army has not updated her, because she is not legally an immediate family member.
Though they talked about marriage early on when they first started dating, including during a December 2021 military ball, Kern said Contreas officially proposed to her in March 2022 at the couple’s Roseboro home after they went out to dinner.
She said that because of their work schedules, she and Contreras planned to elope when he returned from training and have a wedding at a later date.
She said they had the marriage license ready to be signed and rings, and they discussed wedding details the last week Contreras was alive.
“We lived a block from downtown Roseboro, and he planned to become a drill instructor for a couple of years, then open a little donut shop,” Kern said. “That was the dream.”
While the couple shared a home and bank accounts, Kern said she was not listed as a next of kin to be notified if something happened to Contreras.
“We never think anything like this is going to happen, ” she said.
Kern said she thinks the only reason investigators first called her was because Contreras told classmates at the academy that he was engaged and the candidates found her on Facebook.
“If they didn’t do that, I don’t know if I would have ever found out before reading the news,” she said.
Kern said the updates she’s receiving are through Contreras’ family in Nevada, but, she said, it seems as if the Army is also providing the immediate family limited information.
“His mother is the beneficiary, and they’re not letting her see her son, despite telling her at first that she could,” Kern said. “To me, that seems fishy if he was found unresponsive and peaceful in the woods. If there’s nothing nefarious, why are we now told the body can’t be viewed?”
Kern said she also didn’t know that Fort Jackson was holding a memorial for Contreas on Tuesday until 11 a.m. that morning and said she’s not heard about memorial plans at Fort Liberty.
“I don’t think it’s good that the person he lived with and was engaged to has not been notified or thought about,” Kern said. “This whole thing has been difficult when you don’t have answers. After this man spent 12 years in the military, the least they could do is have some empathy and understanding to make the grieving process a little easier. That hasn’t happened.”
According to Tuesday’s news release from Fort Jackson, in all cases of death or injury in the Army, a line-of-duty investigation must be completed.
The investigation is “to determine whether the soldier had an existing-prior-to-service condition, and, if so, whether this condition has been aggravated by service,” the release stated.
According to the release, “depending on the complexity of the case, investigations can take anywhere from weeks to months.”
“Right now, several entities are researching the facts and looking at the incident holistically,” Kelly said in the release. “As information becomes available, we will provide that information back to the family as they have the first right to know. Then, we will provide the information to the public per the surviving family’s wishes.”
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