When Sgt. Richard M. Robak Jr. and his heavily armed squad overran a defense perimeter Friday night at Fort Benning, Ga., the enemy faced no more danger than they would playing a game of laser tag at the local LaserTron.
Robak and his unit, the aggressor force in what the Army calls blank-fire night training, were firing laser bursts from adapters mounted on their military assault rifles, an Army official said.
And they, in turn, were taking fire from the same kind of laser adapters in a combat simulation called MILES 2000. Computers score the hits from each weapon on laser-sensitive targets worn by both sides and record the "kills."
But when the smoke cleared from this battle, something had gone terribly wrong.
Robak, 26, a graduate of Perry High School in Wyoming County, had been shot. Treated by Army medics and evacuated by helicopter, he died a short time later in a nearby Columbus, Ga., hospital.
Somehow, an assault rifle with live ammunition had been used by the soldier who shot Robak.
The Army has not identified the soldier but has ruled out any criminal intent.
A spokeswoman said some soldiers were firing lasers, others were firing blanks. Nobody was supposed to be using live ammunition.
"How that round got in there, we don't know," Richard McDowell, the Fort Benning public affairs
officer, said Monday.
"Until the investigation is complete, that's all we know," McDowell said. "We don't know why it happened, we don't know how it happened. It dumbfounds us."
As Robak's parents plan his funeral this week, an Army safety team has been dispatched to Fort Benning to try to discover what went wrong.
A spokesman for Cubic Defense Systems, the San Diego company that developed MILES 2000 with the Army and touts the system for its "unparalleled accuracy" and "unprecedented realism," also are puzzled.
Abe Wischnia, a company spokesman, said Cubic also is investigating.
Robak, a tall, slender soldier who was born in Olean and graduated from Perry High School in 1994, enlisted in the Army after high school. He had returned in April from duty in Wiesbaden, Germany. While he had not decided whether to make the military a career, he had just re-enlisted for another tour of duty.
"I'm the one who told him to re-up," said his father, Richard Sr., of Grand Island. "I told him the job prospects around here weren't that great."
The elder Robak said the Army told him Monday that his son, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, had been with his unit earlier Friday at the base firing range.
The soldiers then adapted their weapons for the simulated battle and went into the woods for the night-training exercise.
MILES 2000, or Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, is the military's newest version of the mock battle system that was first developed for night training after the Vietnam War.
Military officials had discovered that soldiers were firing wide of the mark during night-time combat and needed a way to improve their accuracy without the danger of firing live ammunition.
The result is a computerized assortment of lasers and laser-sensitive targets that adapt to everything from assault rifles to bazookas to tanks. It's used extensively by the Army, the Marines and military services around the world.
A funeral with full military honors will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Easton-Watson Funeral Home, 98 N. Main St. Perry. He will be buried at Glenwood Cemetery in Perry later this week.
Besides his father, he is survived by his mother, Kathleen Parker of Perry; a sister, Susan Lalonde of Dallas; his maternal grandparents, John and Mary Paese of Buffalo; and his girlfriend, Desiree Reynolds of Castile.