Gut punch. Total gut punch.
Per reporting in The Navy Times, the San Diego County Medical Examiner has determined that 21-year old Seaman James Lovelace, who died May 6, 2016, during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S), died as a result of a homicide, meaning that his death was caused by the actions of another person or persons.
In this case, after reviewing video of the incident in question, and conducting interviews, the Medical Examiner concluded that BUD/S instructors caused Lovelace’s death, as a result of violating training rules and causing him to drown. The instructors repeatedly splashed and harassed Lovelace as he attempted to swim the length of the pool in utilities and combat boots — an evolution that is routine at BUD/S, though stressful — and at a certain point, they went beyond the acceptable level of harassment, and forced Lovelace under water. This happened at least twice, over five minutes, per the report.
This is where the line was crossed, and the rules violated. Instructors are told not to pull or push trainees underwater, even though other harassment — like splashing — is acceptable. Clearly, and not surprisingly, this rule is probably violated at times, in the name of making training as hard as possible. Point taken, and many would not take major issue with this.
What cannot be accepted, though, is when a trainee is clearly struggling, being dunked under water by instructors, and then that struggling trainee begins to turn cyanotic — purple and blue — due to lack of oxygen caused by drowning. This is where the line is drawn, even at BUD/S. Instructors are not there to kill trainees. Someone, anyone there on that pool deck — preferably the senior man or a corpsman, at a minimum — should have stepped in at that point. That is their job, to look after the safety of the trainees.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is investigating the incident, and per reporting, at least one instructor has been re-assigned from instructor duties pending the results of that investigation. It should be noted that there is not yet a determination that a crime has been committed, only that a homicide has occurred. This is legalese, meaning that it remains to be seen what charges, if any, will be levied against the instructors.
Regardless of whether there will be any criminal charges against the instructors involved, this is an unmitigated disaster, on multiple levels. There is no way to sugar coat it. Heads will surely roll at the Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC), the parent command of BUD/S. Changes will also undoubtedly be forced upon BUD/S training. This, all because a couple of BUD/S instructors failed to recognize that one of their students had gone past the point of struggling through the training, to the point of drowning.
Most importantly, and significantly, this is a family tragedy. The Lovelace family sent their son to be trained in the most difficult training program in the United States military. Despite that fact, they surely did not expect him to be drowned in the training. I can only guess that they are enraged and dumbfounded. I would be, too, if it were my son.
Secondly, this is a different kind of disaster for the SEAL community. This episode will surely bring intense scrutiny and micromanagement to BUD/S. Besides the SEALs who will likely face non-judicial punishment, at a minimum, thus effectively ruining their careers, the training may very well be made less rigorous as a result of this.
That would be a shame.
No, instructors are not supposed to make the training easy. Yes, they should make it as hard as possible on the trainees. Yes, they should have dropped Lovelace if he could not make the swim.
But they should not have allowed him to drown. That cannot stand.
BUD/S is controlled. It is monitored. It is chaos and danger inflicted on trainees, in a controlled manner. That control failed in this case, no matter what else is determined to have happened. BUD/S instructors usually pride themselves on running a rigorous and professional training program — and rightly so. In this case, the Center failed in a colossal way to maintain that professionalism.
At the risk of falling into hyperbole, this is a also a potential tragedy for the country. America cannot afford an “easing up” of SEAL training, not at this point in time. We face countless threats and challenges and need our special operations forces to be trained at the highest level. That is what makes this even more sad. The result may very well be just such an easing up. That is not good, to say the least.
Simply put, the actions of one or two BUD/S instructors — if the Medical Examiner’s report turns out to be true — could have just dealt a serious blow to the SEAL community and to the nation. Compounded with the family’s tragedy, this is nothing short of terrible for Naval Special Warfare.