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GAO report gives some answers to family of Marine 1LT killed during an accident in 2019

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First Lt. Conor McDowell, with a Light Armored Vehicle in the background, at Camp Pendleton. (Courtesy of Kathleen Isabel Bourque)

Andrew Dyer

The San Diego Union-Tribune

In May 2019, 1st Lt. Conor McDowell was killed on Camp Pendleton when the light armored vehicle he was commanding rolled over into a ditch while on reconnaissance as part of a training exercise.

The vehicle was maneuvering through tall grass — a result of heavy rains that winter — when it came upon a previously unknown 15-foot washout. A witness later told Marine Corps investigators that from the vehicle, the hole was all but invisible. The hazard was not marked by any signs or stakes.

McDowell was standing in the vehicle commander’s turret, his upper body exposed, when it rolled over. He died pinned beneath the roof of the upturned vehicle.

Michael McDowell, Conor’s father, believed the accident reflected a larger problem of unsafe operation of military vehicles. Along with other parents of troops killed in vehicle accidents, McDowell pressured Congress to investigate.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office delivered a study that confirmed many of their suspicions. It found that lapses in supervision, training and driver attention are common causes of tactical vehicle crashes in the Army and Marine Corps. Although both the Army and Marines have safety processes in place, the study found that implementation of them is inconsistent and supervisors, lacking clearly defined roles and procedures, fail to manage risks. Adherence to speed limits and seat belt use was “ad hoc” among units, the study found.

“This was a systemic problem across all services,” Michael McDowell told the Union-Tribune in an interview. “This is a larger issue — it is not just the Marine Corps.”

From 2010 to 2019 — the years covered by the study — the Army and Marine Corps reported 123 noncombat military deaths related to tactical vehicle accidents. Of the more than 3,700 accidents across both branches, 342 were either class “A” or “B,” which are the most serious in the military’s classification system. These “mishaps,” as the Pentagon calls them, result in either permanent disability or death or damage greater than $500,000.

Driver training was another fault.

“GAO found that factors, such as vehicle type and unit priorities, affected the amount of training that vehicle drivers received,” the report summary says. “Further, licensing classes were often condensed into shorter periods of time than planned with limited drive time, and unit training focused on other priorities rather than driving….”

The Marine Corps, the study found, averaged about five serious accidents per year during the decade it examined. Twenty-two Marines died during that time — a number that does not include the eight killed, along with a Navy corpsman, off San Diego in 2020 when their assault amphibious vehicle sank during training.

In the Marines, light armored vehicles (LAVs) and mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) had higher average rates of accidents than other tactical vehicles.

Rollovers are particularly deadly, the GAO found. Tactical vehicles, with their high centers of gravity and heavy armor on top, can be especially prone to rollovers. Sixty-three percent of the Army’s fatal accidents and 65 percent of the Marine Corps’ fatal accidents involved rollovers, the GAO found.

While the report did not single out the bases where accidents occurred, Camp Pendleton — home of the 1st Marine Division — was the site of several fatal accidents in the Corps in recent years.

Maj. Gen. Roger Turner Jr., the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, said in a statement Friday that safety is part of any unit’s readiness and is therefore the responsibility of commanders.

“The peacetime loss of personnel and equipment adversely impacts combat readiness and is not acceptable,” Turner said. ” The 1st Marine Division remains committed to implementing all aspects of the Marine Corps Safety Program, to include the safe and effective employment and operation of tactical vehicles.”

Marine Corps Installations West, which oversees base operations at Camp Pendleton, is responsible for road maintenance and the base’s training ranges. 1st Lt. Charlotte Dennis, a base spokesperson, said in an email that the Range Operations Division, which is responsible for patrolling and monitoring training areas, worked closely with the GAO on its report.

Dennis said the base implemented three changes in 2019 after two fatal rollovers.

One such change was an additional warning to daily road and river reports delivered to units training on the base advising units to use ground guides in areas of high grass or other factors that obscure visibility. The Range Safety Officer Training Course was also updated to emphasize potential driving hazards, Dennis said.

Finally, new changes to training standard operating procedures on potential driving hazards have been submitted, directing range safety officers to brief personnel on those potential hazards before training.

“The key to mishap prevention is a training and education process for military units to ensure they have the knowledge to operate safely and the awareness to identify potential hazards,” Dennis said.

McDowell, however, said he wants high-ranking officers — generals — to be held accountable for deaths that occur under their command. McDowell, a former BBC journalist who was a key player in the Northern Ireland peace process, currently serves as a national security fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank.

He pointed to last year’s fatal sinking of the Marine assault amphibious vehicle off the Southern California coast as indicative of the Corps’ failure to hold senior leaders accountable.

An investigation found that several of the amphibious vehicles — including the one that sank — were in poor states of repair. The vehicle that sank never should have been allowed to leave the amphibious ship from which it was operating, investigators said.

McDowell said the Corps initially only punished lower-ranking Marines.

“They sacked the colonel, they sacked the lieutenant colonel — they (generals) don’t want to bear responsibility,” McDowell said. “That is a lack of leadership, responsibility and accountability.”

The commanding general of the 1st Marine Division in charge of the readiness of the unit involved, Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, left the command when he was appointed the Corps’ inspector general in September 2020, months before the investigation into the sinking was complete.

The Marines’ investigation, when it was finished in March 2021, found Castellvi bore some responsibility for the poor condition of the vehicles. But the Corps did not punish him at first. Under pressure from the families of the lost service members, the Marines opened another probe into the formation of the expeditionary unit to which they were attached, focused on Castellvi.

Castellvi was removed from his job as Marine Corps inspector general in May and formally disciplined by the Corps in June when the second investigation was finished.

To McDowell, that the Marines made Castellvi their chief investigator in the first place — after the deaths under his watch — underscores the problem of accountability at the military’s highest ranks.

“What does that say about (commandant of the Marine Corps David) Berger’s management skills?” McDowell asked. “It was totally inappropriate.”

McDowell said Congress should act to hold flag officers and generals accountable.

“When they get promoted to a star or three or four, they can’t just push the blame down,” McDowell said. “The privilege, the whole culture of never taking responsibility and blaming down, that permeates all the way through the ranks. Where does it stop?”

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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