The findings come after grieving families pressured the Defense Department and members of Congress to explain command failures and improve safety and training measures to prevent further tragedy. Noncombat accidents and mishaps, including aviation crashes, have for years outpaced U.S. military combat deaths following the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Marine Lt. Conor McDowell, a 24-year old platoon commander, was killed in one such incident at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton in 2019. McDowell’s light armored vehicle navigated rough terrain, including high grass with poor visibility, as he stood in the turret. The vehicle tumbled into a hidden grass-filled crevasse, crushing McDowell after he yelled to other Marines to brace for impact — an effort that saved their lives, his parents Michael McDowell and Susan Flanigan wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times. No safety officials warned the massive hole was a hazard, they said, and McDowell was not faulted for the accident.
Michael McDowell called the GAO report a good starting point, but said he’d like to see its recommendations — including formalized training and better identification of training hazards — bolstered by legislation mandating reforms.
“The Army and Marine Corps … need to report back to Congress and the public on what actions they have taken and when,” McDowell told The Washington Post. “These measures will absolutely save lives and spare families the cruel grief of the losses of their loved ones.”
The Marine Corps agreed with GAO’s recommendations, saying in a statement that it is “making every effort to reduce our mishap rate.” The service did not indicate how and when it would implement the recommendations. The Army said it concurred with all of the GAO’s recommendations and has implemented two broadly intended to improve how it trains vehicle operators.
Investigators conducted dozens of interviews across several Army brigades and Marine Corps battalions, said Cary Russell, who led the inquiry as head of GAO’s defense capabilities and management.
What emerged, he said, was a portrait of drivers and vehicle commanders who were handed responsibilities over massive tactical vehicles without consistent training or safety oversight from their leaders. In one 2019 survey among Marines that sought opinions about the safety officials within their units, almost half said they were unaware their units had any safety officials.
Speed was a common factor in accidents, Russell said, when crews were faced with pressures to navigate to and from training events, and units that use bigger, heavier vehicles did not commonly require seat belts.
In one disturbing revelation, some troops removed seat belts because they interfered with getting in and out of the vehicles, the report concluded.
Rollovers — accidents where vehicles flip on their side or upside down — were by far the most lethal type of accident, the report found. They accounted for 63 percent of the deaths but only a quarter of surveyed accidents. Some vehicles, such as McDowell’s reconnaissance vehicle, require commanders to stand up in a hatch, putting them at risk of being flung or pinned if it tips over.
Rollovers generally declined, but Russell said he couldn’t determine whether training or policy changes impacted that.
Walt Yates, a retired Marine officer who specialized in training systems, surmised there is a corollary between safety shortfalls and postwar spending cuts. When rollovers were occurring at high rates in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, the Marine Corps leveraged that wartime funding from Congress to pay for realistic driver simulators designed to prevent them.
“These training capabilities would not have made it above the funding cutline if the services were asking for it in their normal peacetime budget process,” Yates said. “When the supplemental funding dried up, the budget for … courses and maintaining the driver training simulators also dried up.”
Kimberly Weaver, whose 20-year-old son, Army Spc. Nicholas Panipinto, was killed in a November 2019 Bradley Fighting Vehicle rollover, said she’s especially concerned about maintenance issues. Panipinto’s vehicle rolled on flat ground in South Korea after the heavy tread on the Bradley’s right side came off during a road test.
“Even with sufficient training, he wouldn't have been able to handle that,” Weaver said. “It would have rolled over regardless. How many other vehicles are the same way?”
Like Michael McDowell, Weaver called the GAO’s recommendations a good start in getting widespread problems fixed.
“Service members should be able to train with certainty that they’re safe,” Weaver said. “Accidents sometimes will happen, but not at the rate that they are. It’s unacceptable.”