Traffic flows along Highway 62 east of downtown Twentynine Palms at sunset. CRYSTAL CHATHAM/THE DESERT SUN
Over the past seven years, more Marines from the Twentynine Palms Marine base have died back home than in the Middle East By Brett Kelman and Drew Schmenner The Desert Sun
fter stargazing in the Mojave Desert, Cpl. Donald Fowler gunned the gas pedal on a desolate stretch of two-lane highway, a heavy metal song blaring through his speakers and the headlights of his yellow Ford Mustang piercing the dark. About 10:30 p.m. on the night of Feb. 7, 2011, Fowler and his passenger, Marine Sgt. Steven Afalla, headed home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. Fowler had downed a few beers, but he wasn’t drunk. In his pocket, he had a bottle of 20 Oxycodone pills, though he hadn’t taken one that night. But he did have gabapentin, a seizure medication sometimes prescribed for anxiety, in his bloodstream. Mixed with alcohol, gabapentin can make you drowsy. Fowler, who had been cited for speeding four times in seven years, rounded a curve on Highway 62 topping 90 mph. The car went over a small hill and the front tires floated off the pavement. Fowler veered
A wooden cross marks the spot where Marine Cpl. Donald D. Fowler III was killed in a car accident. Fowler, an Iraq war veteran, lost control of his yellow Mustang while speeding down Highway 62 on Feb. 7, 2011. CRYSTAL CHATHAM/THE DESERT SUN
right onto a soft sand shoulder. He overcorrected, recrossed both lanes and slammed into a two-foot berm on the other side of the highway. The Mustang tumbled through the desert. The roof ripped off. A guitar flew out of the trunk, still in its case. When the car stopped rolling,
it was upside down. Afalla kicked open his door and squeezed through a narrow opening. He rushed to the other side of the car and tried to yank open Fowler’s door. It barely budged. Sand and shattered glass burned Afalla’s eyes. He fum-
bled for his cell phone and called 911. As he waited for the ambulance, he slumped against the car, smoked a Marlboro and pleaded with his friend. “Wake up, man, wake up.” Fowler didn’t move. Sixteen minutes later, Afalla saw flashing lights. Paramedics sprinted toward him. They asked if he was all right. “Help my friend,” he said. “He’s not responding.” Afalla felt a hand on his back. “We’re going to focus on you now, sir,” a paramedic said. Fowler, a Purple Heart recipient who survived three deployments to Iraq, died on the side of Highway 62. He was 27. His death is remarkable for its similarity to those of at least 27 other Marines who have died in off-duty vehicle accidents while stationed in Twentynine Palms since 2007. Five additional Marines who were visiting from other bases also died in the desert surrounding Twentynine Palms during this time period. Together, these fatalities represent more than 10 percent of all Marine off-duty vehicle deaths (305), since 2007, according to Please see DEATHS, H2
SAFE FROM WAR | DEAD AT HOME TODAY: Since 2007, 28 Marines from the Twentynine Palms base have died in off-duty vehicle crashes, a rate higher than at other Marine bases.
Pfc. Jorge Luis Beltran – Feb. 23, 2007. Beltran was killed in a vehicle accident. No other details were available.
Cpl. David Alonso Jaramillo – May 2, 2007. Jaramillo crashed while driving a pickup truck east on the 60 Freeway.
MONDAY: Marines who have killed themselves while at the Twentynine Palms base were twice as likely to use alcohol than the average Marine at the time.
Lance Cpl. Oliver Estrada – May 2, 2007. Estrada was the passenger in a pickup truck that crashed while driving east on the 60 Freeway.
TUESDAY: As many as 300,000 military service members have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sgt. Luis Alfaro – May 25, 2007. Alfaro was stumbling drunk across Highway 62 when a Buick Regal struck him. He was thrown about 200 feet.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Formosa – July 27, 2007. Formosa was killed in a motorcycle accident on Highway 62.
MORE ONLINE: Marines share their stories in a nine-minute video at DesertSun.com, where you can also view photo galleries.
Lance Cpl. Richard Scott Bailey – April 21, 2008. Bailey was killed in a high-speed single car accident on Highway 62.
Cpl. Jason Verta – Sept. 7, 2008. Verta was driving north on Morningstar Mine Road when he lost control of a Pontiac Solstice, flipping it end over end for more than 500 feet.