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U.S. Army soldier from Las Vegas dies during training exercise

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A 40-year-old Army staff sergeant from Las Vegas who was training to be a drill sergeant was found dead after failing to return from a land navigation course at a South Carolina military base.

Search crews found Staff Sgt. Jaime Contreras nearly 11 hours after he was supposed to have completed the three-hour course Monday at Fort Jackson near Columbia.

Contreras was only about 164 feet off the course “but that is very unforgiving terrain,” said Maj. John Farrell, the director of emergency services at the Army’s largest training base.

Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, Fort Jackson’s commander, released few details about what may have happened to Contreras, saying the investigation has just started.

“We do not know the cause of his deviation, if any, on the course or his cause of death,” Kelly said at a Wednesday news conference.

Contreras was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and lived in Las Vegas, Kelly said.

“We are providing support to both his family and his teammates and we will continue to do so,” Kelly said.

Land navigation training involves using maps, compasses and other tools to find certain locations in a 2.3-square mile grid.

Contreras had been taking a training course with a buddy Friday. On Monday, more than 90 drill sergeant trainees were sent on individual missions, Army officials said.

The course is supposed to last from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. When Contreras didn’t return by 2 p.m., Fort Jackson started a massive search, calling in local and state law enforcement officers to help, Farrell said.

Eventually, searchers were able to get a cellphone ping from Contreras, and aircraft and ground crews found his body about 11:30 p.m. Monday, Farrell said.

Without knowing exactly which points Contreras was trying to reach, it is hard to say exactly how far off course he was, Farrell said.

“He was not very far outside the boundaries of the course,” Farrell said.

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