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Marine Corps Recruit Drownings
Tim King Salem-News.com
Image of Tim King in Marine Corps basic training.
(SALEM) - The United States Marine Corps has a peculiar history when it comes to boot camp drownings. Simply said, there are far too many recruit drownings and history tells us that there is no permanent system in place to prevent this from happening. It happened to me, only I was revived on the side of the pool. Many have not been so lucky.
The Marine Corps nearly ceased to exist after the 1956 "Ribbon Creek" incident at Parris Island, South Carolina, when Marine recruits were intentionally marched into a tidal stream by a drill instructor who had served in both WWII and Korea, and drowned.
As insane as that deadly night was, the Marine drill instructor, Matthew McKeon, was sentenced to only nine months in the brig. He was given a bad conduct discharge (I knew Marines who received those for smoking pot) and then that was rescinded, and his sentence reduced to three months in the brig, and he was allowed to stay in the Marine Corps. As this article conveys, killing Marine recruits is small change in terms of accountability.
McKeon had plenty of "sympathizers" - sort of like Lieutenant William Calley, who oversaw the rape and murder of hundreds of villagers at My Lai during the Vietnam War. In each case, be it killing Marine recruits, or innocent non-combatant civilian boys and girls and mothers and old men, the punishment is light. Calley served almost no time, was pardoned by Nixon, and allowed to life out his life in spite of the blood of innocent people on his hands.
The following passage about Ribbon Creek, published in a Marine Corps publication, is haunting, just like the Marine Corps' treatment of the crime.
"Though the waters of Ribbon Creek now run still, Parris Island still feels the ripples from April 8, 1956.
"That night, the fervent splashes of six recruits would rock the Marine Corps when they drowned in Ribbon Creek after their drill instructor, SSgt. Matthew McKeon, led them on an ill-fated disciplinary night hike into the swamp." 1
"Discipline" is the key word here. That is what makes Marines what they are in the first place, it is the reason the Marines are so hardcore about training. Much of it is well placed, but not all of it. The biggest problem I see as an observer; as a Marine recruit then, and as a reporter today, is the consensus that negative events in the Marine Corps are either excused or condemned because they are considered as an act of the Marine Corps itself. Crimes occur at the hands and orders of individuals. The institution with clear rules prohibiting dangerous behavior, is not wholly to blame, unless it fails to punish those who go over the line.
I stood on the yellow footprints in early June, 1981, at MCRD (Marine Recruit Depot) San Diego. Marine recruits entered a 93 day training cycle after their drill instructors pick them up from receiving barracks. I spent about ten days there, then entered first phase of boot camp, in Platoon 1044, First Battalion Charlie Company. First phase is a month, this is the time of the greatest humiliation for a recruit, mostly because you have no idea what you are doing at first and you see third phase recruits and they look vastly advanced. Second phase is spent at Camp Pendleton where we underwent infantry and marksmanship training. Third phase is back at MCRD in San Diego, this is where swim qualification takes place.
One day the drill instructors told us we would be going to "swim qual" the following morning, and they asked if there were any "rocks" in the platoon, their word for non-swimmers. (My co-author, Robert O'Dowd, went through the same program at Parris Island twenty years before I did. He was not a swimmer and endured significant torment and fear but eventually did learn to swim and qualify.)
As a surfer from Southern California, I had great swimming ability and just went with the other swimmers the next day assuming all would be well, man was I wrong.
In our uniforms, minus boots, we climbed ladders up to diving boards that simulated stepping off of the side of a ship. After hitting the water, we were called by an instructor, as I was told they were comprised of Navy SEAL's and Marine Recon. My instructor said, "Swim across the pool and back using a regular stroke, then repeat it using a side stroke, and then swim the pool on a back stroke" and that seemed simple enough. After that all we had to do to qualify at the basic level was to float for five minutes, piece of cake.
As I was swimming back and forth, another recruit appeared to be having a problem, so I paused and asked if he was OK, and he latched on to me and began using me as a buoyancy device, for a lack of better terms. The panic generated from this is probably what caused yet another recruit to start stressing out, and he grabbed on also. I was being held underwater, I had water in my lungs, so I broke free and swam to the side.
An instructor, I don't know if it was the same that I initially dealt with, said, "If you touch the edge of the pool you're going to the bottom recruit!" I responded by saying, "Sir, the private is drowning sir" and I touched the rail of the pool because I was totally exhausted and drowning. The last thing I remember was the instructor diving in and taking me to the bottom of the pool, which was deep, and hitting my head on the bottom.
I woke up surrounded by people; recruits and staff from the pool, and a drill instructor as I recall, and they told me I had drowned and been revived. It was a tough experience though I think my biggest thought was simply that I was glad to be alive. It was the next part of the story that gives me the chills, even today.
After my drowning experience, the platoon continued its final weeks of training. We started with a little more than 100 recruits and graduated less than 70 on 11 Sept. 1981. Needless to say, Marine basic training has a very high attrition rate.
In second phase, my platoon and I were not allowed to qualify with the .45 pistol because a "model recruit" in the last platoon to pass through, blew his brains out and the pistol range was covered in yellow crime scene tape. I have a feeling only a scant number of actual deaths are even tabulated by the DoD. At least one recruit died from heat stroke while I was in basic and I remember drill instructors rolling a "fat body" or overweight recruit, right off a steep hillside that I won't call a cliff, but was close. He didn't die and was not seriously injured but it is an example of the needless behavior of drill instructors.
My drill instructors or DI's, were probably somewhere in the middle when it came to cruelty. The Senior DI was Staff Sergeant George Darner. I always sensed that he didn't like me personally, but he was mostly fair and rational, except for when he came into the barracks at night drunk of course, or when he drove a fist into my stomach during an inspection.
Darner was frustrating and potentially violent, but Sergeant B.B. Donaldson was the sadistic son of a bitch DI. He was excessively cruel and demeaning and just seemed like he really enjoyed dogging us. I had no question that he was rotten deep inside and I wasn't the only recruit who fantasized about finding this guy in an alley some day.
Next was T.M Montgomery, he was a Sergeant also and a Vietnam Veteran, who had gotten out and then rejoined the Corps. Montgomery was an Okie and while he was shocking, he was doing business and was harsh but didn't get his rocks off on thrashing recruits the way Donaldson did.
Donaldson's favorite pastime was to put us in "the pit" and have us do bends and thrusts until the dust was a standing cloud about four feet tall, and then we did push ups. I was surprised to learn how long a human being can spit dust, it is amazing.
There is a certain air that some people carry when gloating and Donaldson's face just lit up when he knew he was making people suffer. I had no idea what depths his depraved mind was capable of.
Sgt. Donaldson came into the squad bay a few days after my brush with death and said, as closely as I can recall, "I'm motivated, I just watched a non-hacker recruit drown in the swimming pool. I'm glad he drowned, he had no business joining my Marine Corps." It made me sick at the time. Just knowing someone died was bad enough, but I was particularly struck because I came so close to dying in that same pool only a week or so before.
Later, it was revealed that the recruit, whose death made Donaldson so happy and "motivated", was a lifeguard from Galveston, Texas. A lifeguard? A California surfer? It helped me personally to learn that a number of Marines and sailors responsible for the lifeguard recruit's death were given court martials, and (I believe) long sentences. If that part is accurate, then it would be the one exception to the rule of utter leniency toward murderous military instructors with regard to drownings. This was a long time ago, and consequently, there is little in the way of direct reference to this drowning death that I can find online. The entry below certainly seems to be the same case.
"A recruit drowned at the pool at MCRD San Diego in September of 1981. I was a runner at RTR during mess/maintenance week and saw the parade of witnesses, fellow recruits, being grilled by Colonel Gibson over what happened. Unfortunately it's happened before and it will no doubt happen again." - A.A. Cunningham 2
Another comment on a different site, made what I see as a poignant comment about the time period.
"These Drill Instructors are being filmed you see, hence the appearance of civility. Hell, since this was the 80's, this was "Old Corps", human beings would drown in pools, get physically assaulted by their Drill Instructors, and have all kinds of crazy shit thrown their way." - Christian121y 3
A report published online with the Defense Technical Information Center, "MORTALITY DURING U.S. ARMED FORCES BASIC TRAINING: A 25-YEAR REVIEW (1977-2001)" by Stephanie L. Scoville, offers data on military deaths during this time period.
The report explains that data from the Worldwide Casualty System (WCS) describes the ten leading causes of death for active duty military personnel for the two-year period 1981-1982. The study was conducted in order to calculate estimates of associated costs for major causes of mortality, "and to use these data to assist in the formulation of health policy." However the report discloses that no studies at the time, nor DoD periodic summaries, "provide detailed epidemiological or risk information."
"Deaths occurring during basic military training (BMT) are of particular interest because these deaths are highly visible to the general public, often result in litigation, and can create immediate policy implications. Because recruits are younger than 36 years and are screened for good health, each death can be considered premature." 4
Premature is one word that is consistent with death and the Marine Corps.
The short answer is "nothing". The other side of the coin is that probably 100% of all drownings like mine never result in disciplinary action. Only when somebody dies, does it come to the attention of the Corps at all. As stated below, the sentence to a senior non commissioned officer for killing a recruit in a drowning incident is a comparative slap on the wrist anyway, for a crime that in any similar case outside of the Marine Corps, would almost certainly be Murder.
In 2005, Staff Sgt. Nadya Lopez, a swimming instructor, was accused of negligence in the 2005 drowning of a recruit. Lopez was found not guilty by a military court at Parris Island, S.C. Lopez, a 12-year Marine veteran, pleaded not guilty in the events surrounding the Feb. 8, 2005, drowning death of 19-year-old recruit Jason Tharp, who died during water survival training at the base.
If convicted, Lopez "could have faced the maximum punishment of three years confinement, a dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay and allowances..." So there it is. The life of a Marine recruit is worth a three-year prison sentence. That does not seem substantial or fair.
"The court found that there was not sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction under the charge of negligent homicide against Lopez," Maj. Guillermo Canedo, a spokesman at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, told American Forces Press Service.
According to the report from American Forces Press Service, "Over the course of the investigations, several other Marine instructors at Parris Island were found to have committed possible acts of misconduct or violations of standard operating procedure, Canedo said. Most of those violations weren't related to the Tharp incident, he said.
"However, one instructor struck Tharp on the chest with his elbow the day before the recruit's death, Canedo said, while another indicated that he would throw Tharp into the pool if he didn't get in. All were charged and disciplined through nonjudicial punishment for violations of the standard operating procedure, Canedo said.
"Canedo said the coroner's report attributed Tharp's death to 'drowning, best characterized as accidental.'"
FOX News carried an Associated Press article that revealed the feelings of the family of Jason Tharp.
"'Sadly Marines do die in training,' Lt. Col. Scott Jack told the judge in the defense's closing arguments. He added that Lopez 'did nothing wrong. She was a professional water combat survival instructor.'"
"Tharp's mother, Linda, cried as the verdict was read and told the judge, 'I hope you see Jason every time you turn around and hear him screaming.'"
"Tharp's father, Johnny, fought back tears and said: 'Our son just got killed again.'"
On a good note, 18 video cameras were installed in the Parris Island pool complex since Tharp's death, and a Marine Corps water survival instructor-qualified officer now oversees pool management and safety5 6.
In a story that happens to involve very close friends of our family, we know that Marine Lance Cpl. Blake A. Magaoay, a surfer and martial arts expert from Hawaii, was also drowned at MCRD San Diego, and revived. This happened shortly after Blake joined the Marine Corps in 2003. Blake's story was one of both physical and racial torment while serving as a United States Marine.
After surviving the drowning at MCRD, Blake Magaoya was deployed with his unit to Iraq. After receiving a battlefield injury, L/Cpl Blake Magaoua was killed in combat operations.7.
According to the Charlotte Observer, Josh Islam joined the Marines after his sophomore year of high school.
"Islam’s father, James, said Marine Corps officials who visited him and his wife, Donna, told them the Marine Corps is awaiting the results of an autopsy. The couple live in Gainesville, Fla."
"'But he said officials provided the family information 'that’s enough to say it’s not consistent with a drowning.'" 8
I have searched a number of terms to try to locate different drowning cases, and conclude based on my own experience, that most of the recruits who drown are given CPR and revived. It is a somewhat embarrassing thing for some to admit, I would think, but my point is that we will never know how many drown, versus how many die from drowning.
A 2007 AP article from FOX News, relates a story about an instructor drowning to death.
"Last year, four Marines at the San Diego depot were charged in the drowning of a fellow drill instructor during a water survival training course. Two were acquitted of wrongdoing in the case. Charges were dropped against a third Marine and a fourth received nonjudicial discipline." 9
Still don't believe this is a problem? The following observation at Parris Island in 2004 from a retired Navy Chaplain, reminds me of what I witnessed while covering the war in Iraq; watching U.S. "contractors" physically and emotionally abuse a set of captive Iraqi prisoners for hours. It is a helpless feeling to know you can't do anything but watch military abuse.
"Whistles were blowing. An electronic horn was blaring. Instructors were yelling at the young Marines who were trying to qualify for instructor duty. The training followed standard operating procedures of the swimmer in battle dress uniform going through a series of exercises with loud and confusing distractions occurring in the process. The objective for the swimmer was to keenly focus on completing the process. One Marine on the other side of the pool instantly drew my attention. He was receiving excessive attention from two swim instructors. The instructors were down on their knees at poolside screaming at the young swimmer. He struggled to stay afloat in his cammies, helmet, and flak vest. Exhausted, he made his way to the side of the pool where he slowly climbed onto the deck. While the Marine sat, the instructors screamed at each side of his head telling him to get back in the water. It appeared intentional and a noticeable deviation from the others in training. After a couple of minutes they pushed the browbeaten and still exhausted Marine back into the water. He struggled to stay afloat. Then with considerable effort he swam to the side of the pool. Slowly, he climbed out the pool and fell on to the deck. Again, the two swim instructors screamed for him to get in the water. At the same time, they were pulling the shoulders of his flak vest up to keep him sitting. The Marine swimmer was listless. After getting little response, the instructors dragged him along the side of the pool, around the corner, and in front of the concrete bleachers. As one instructor supported the by-now non-responsive Marine, the other straddled him and repeatedly slapped his face." 10
The overall number of deaths may be comparatively low, but there are not very many Marines to begin with. There is something about this problem, all personal involvement aside, that seems highly unnecessary. Recruits who are suffering, or named "Islam" end up dead. Some of us are killed and brought back. I applaud the cameras installed at Parris Island, hopefully they can't be turned off when the instructors are feeling mean. As for Donaldson... I know there is a certain sadistic type of personality that is just drawn to the Marine Corps like a magnet, but celebrating the death of a recruit is anti-American, anti-Marine, and I defy anyone who disagrees.