When Tamby Clawson and Chad Schmidt first saw their Marine son lying in a medically induced coma, breathing on a ventilator and covered in bandages in a burn unit hospital bed at UC San Diego Medical Center, they didn’t recognize him.
“That was not our son lying there,” said Schmidt, 45, of Gillette, Wyoming. “His face was burned and swollen. It was something you never want to see your kid involved in.”
The shock was heightened by how and where the19-year-old was so severely injured: not in combat but during training on the Camp Pendleton base.
Tagen Schmidt was among 14 Marines and a sailor burned — with several incurring critical injuries — when their amphibious assault vehicle burst into flames last month following an explosion during a pre-deployment training exercise in hilly terrain and dry brush between two gun ranges.
Schmidt, among the more severely injured, suffered second degree burns to his face, arms and hands.
The accident is the most recent in a rash of non-combat training exercises that have severely injured or killed Marines.
The rate of Marine on-duty training related mishaps causing injury and death has moved up and down over the years. But the number of ground and aviation mishaps per 100,000 Marines this year is 10.49, up about 60 percent from 2014, according to data from the Naval Safety Center.
In all branches of the armed forces, at least 56 service members have been killed or injured in non-combat incidents since the beginning of June, according to an analysis by the Military Times.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who commanded the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during its third deployment to Iraq in 2006, this week called on Congress to invest in readiness for the military. He also asked lawmakers to undo automatic spending cuts put in effect in 2013 as part of a federal budget agreement.
“I am among the majority in this country that believes our nation can afford survival,” Mattis said. “And I want the Congress back in the driver’s seat of budget decisions, not in the spectator’s seat of automatic cuts.”
The recent injuries in non-combat accidents follow several years where both non-deployed and deployed troops have seen a rise in accidents and crashes that have prompted operational pauses in the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Navy.
Now, concerned Pentagon officials are looking to possible causes, including a speed up in training schedules to meet deployment demands around the globe, what top defense leaders say has been reduced funding for training, equipment maintenance and base infrastructure, as well as a drain to the private sector of experienced, highly skilled armed services personnel.
An official report on the September amphibious vehicle fire hasn’t been released by the Marine Corps and officials declined to comment on details of the incident. But Schmidt and Clawson said military officials told them the accident occurred after the tracked, armored vehicle became stuck and then inadvertently ruptured a four-inch natural gas line.
“The track (vehicle) slipped,” said Clawson, 42. “As it rocked back and forth to get it unstuck, it cut through the gas line. Gas began spewing out and was coming into parts of the vehicle. The boys in the back all smelled the gas.”
That’s when there was an explosion and flames erupted, fueled by the continuous flow of gas, she said, recounting Tagen Schmidt’s recollection. “Our son was the second-to-last out,” Clawson said.
Her son was in a medically induced coma for nine days, had to breathe with the help of a machine and had second-degree burns on his hands, right shoulder and his face. His weight dropped from 190 to 176 by the time he was discharged Oct. 10, and his parents say he needs help eating, dressing and bathing. He will continue to undergo wound care and occupational therapy in San Diego.
Days after the Camp Pendleton vehicle fire, Mattis announced he was ordering a Department of Defense review that would include the effects of the so-called budget “sequestration” deal three years ago. The action also came in response to a series of high-profile and deadly incidents.
In June, two Marines were critically injured when a flash fire broke out in an F/A-18 jet during routine maintenance at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
In August, a Marine died during physical training at Camp Pendleton when a tree branch fell on him and crushed him. In the same month, a second Marine was found unresponsive during training at the seaside base. His death is being investigated in part by the Navy Criminal Investigation Service.
West Covina resident Ruben P. Velasco, based at Camp Pendleton, was among three Marines killed off Australia in August, when an Osprey crashed during a routine training exercise.
Among the incidents included in the Military Times analysis of deaths were back-to-back Pacific Ocean collisions over the summer between warships and merchant vessels.
On Aug. 21, U.S. Navy destroyer the John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore leaving 10 American sailors dead. On June 17, the U S S Fitzgerald, also a destroyer, collided with a Philippines-registered container ship, leaving seven sailors died.
The analysis also included training accidents such as a KC-130 airplane crash in July that left Marine captain and co-pilot Sean Elliott, of San Juan Capistrano, and 15 others dead.
Days after Schmidt and his fellow Marines were burned, an explosion on a training field at Fort Bragg killed a special operations soldier and hurt seven others. And parachute accidents at public events such as air shows took the lives of 11 special operations soldiers between 2011 and 2016.
Gen. John Toolan Jr., who retired last year as the commanding general of the Marine Corps Forces Pacific and before that led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, said current global threats and the need to counterbalance large countries with similar military capabilities are making training more important than ever.
Toolan said it’s critical for Marines to simulate battlefield conditions. That involves not just live weapons fire, but mastering new technology including drones, robots and computer simulations.
The pressure, specifically on the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Pacific Command, has increased with heightened tensions in Asia and the Middle East. And training timelines have been compressed to meet deployment timelines, Toolan said.
“There remain standards that must be attained, however the experienced leadership and intuitive decision makers have less time in key decision-maker assignments,” Toolan said. “There is no substitute for experience.”
Compounding the pressures, some key military personnel — such as pilots — are now in high demand in the job market, which is siphoning off some of the most highly trained specialists, he said. “The airlines are hiring and drawing on our talent pool, ” he said. “Better pay is changing the dynamic. The pressures of the command discourage experienced leaders and they leave early.
“And many don’t accept the responsibilities of command.”
Defense agencies routinely request more money in Washington. But Toolan argued budget deals that forced automatic cuts and troop downsizing have been “very damaging” to readiness training. Pilots and crews are getting less experience as a result of reduced flight time and increased maintenance hours, he said.
Vietnam — era assault amphibious vehicles, like the one Schmidt was in, require 12-15 hours of service for every hour of use, according to Marine Corps officials.
Training saved lives
In Tagen Schmidt’s view, it was the training he and his fellow Marines completed since December that saved their lives. The accident on Sept. 13 occurred during the final exercise of a pre-deployment training.
His infantry platoon trained on the vast Camp Pendleton base’s shooting ranges and practiced tactical maneuvers in mock-scenario combat towns. They practiced amphibious assaults coming off the U.S.S. Anchorage, storming ashore and pushing inland. And at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, they trained in the heat with assault amphibious vehicles.
“I felt like I was ready to go to war,” Tagen Schmidt said.
The day the accident happened, he was deep inside the armored vehicle, standing security, when he smelled what seemed like rotten eggs.
“I remember my father warning me about that when we worked on mechanics,” he said. “I looked down inside the vehicle and within five seconds it blew up.”
His first reaction was to get other Marines out. He grabbed one near him and threw him toward the door. With the vehicle engulfed in flames, he crawled toward the door where he saw a fire extinguisher. When he tried to pull the pin from the fire extinguisher to engage it, it cracked and fell apart in his hands, he said.
“I remember being pulled out and then I blacked out,” he said. “I remember two guys carrying me down the hill. I told them to let me walk because I thought others were more injured than I was.” Three of the Marines remain in a burn hospital in Texas. The other eleven have been released.
“I believe our training saved our lives that day,” he said. “Everybody knew what to do. We were in a fiery inferno but we stayed calm enough to get everyone out.”
Recovery, promotion and finishing his contract
About a week before Tagen Schmidt was released from the hospital, he walked down the hospital hallway at the request of his mother.
As he turned the corner, he saw more than a dozen members of his platoon and his battalion commander lined up the hallway. Still a bit woozy from medication, he stopped and stood at attention.
His commander called him forward and pinned a new arm badge to the shirt of his uniform he had been given to hold — promoting him to Lance Corporal.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said afterward. “They were my guys and they were there for me.”
He plans to head home to Wyoming in about a month. In California, the Marine Corps has provided housing for his parents, their spouses and other family members to help with his recovery.
He expects to spend more time healing in his small hometown, which he left in June 2016 when he headed to boot camp in San Diego.
“He’s a very patriotic kid,” said Chad Schmidt, who added he admires his son’s lack of self-pity.
Tagen Schmidt said he isn’t done with the Marines. “Just because I got hurt doesn’t mean I’m getting out. I’ve been through so much, I don’t want to give up.”
It was a such an unlikely accident, his parents say. Do they worry this or worse could happen again during training?
“We didn’t expect it here,” his mother said. “We know they have to go through live fire to be prepared. Although we don’t expect it, we aren’t fooled (and know) that something could happen.”
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