Body of Missing Soldier Found - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

03/02/06

Body of Missing Soldier Found

The family and colleagues of a Fort Stewart soldier can begin to have closure after his body is found in the Altamaha River between Wayne and Long Counties. The search was agonizing, and they're thankful to finally have the conclusion, no matter how sad.

For the 11th day, search crews entered the water of the Altamaha River today. Fellow soldiers waited on the banks for word on Sgt. James Michael Hodgkiss. Last Monday, he and friends were fishing from a boat when it overturned in the current.

"He was such an integral part of the unit," said Capt. Jacob Dalton of the 5-7 Cavalry. "Everybody knew him and he touched everybody in a powerful way."

Around 10am, they found Hodgkiss' body more than a mile from where he'd disappeared in an area that had been checked over and over. Searchers say the cold water and the current can hold a body under for days, even weeks.

"You never can figure this out," said Darrell Ballance with the Long County Emergency Management Agency. "I've been on these searches and they'll be just a few hundred feet from where they went down in the same swift water as this guy."

Ranger Randy Aspinwall with the Department of Natural Resources spotted the body. He says the Altamaha's beauty hides its danger. On the surface, it doesn't look too bad but, Aspinwall told us, "There's undertows, there's trees, limbs, all kinds of snags. You can basically get hung on anything if you go under."

What made this tragedy even tougher was this unit had just returned from a year in Iraq. "We kept it as a feather in our cap that we had not lost a soldier through the whole deployment," said Capt. Dalton. "We were proud of that."

He says the last thing they expected was to lose someone like this.

Capt. Dalton praised the work of emergency crews and volunteers from Wayne and Long Counties who've searched for 11 days in this tragedy. The death is still under investigation, but when that wraps up, Hotchkiss' body will be sent to his family in California for burial.

Reported by: Dal Cannady, dcannady@wtoc.com

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