Articles

Navy will not file criminal charges after the drowning of SEAL trainee

The Navy won't file criminal charges stemming from the drowning death of Seaman James Derek Lovelace in SEAL training.


The San Diego County medical examiner had ruled the 21-year-old sailor's May 6, 2016, death in a swim tank in Coronado a homicide, saying in a July 2016 autopsy report that the "actions, or inactions, of the instructors and other individuals involved were excessive and directly contributed to the death."

Navy Cdr. Liam Hulin, director of the Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command, reviewed the findings of a Naval Criminal Investigative Services probe and determined that Lovelace's drowning "was not the result of a crime and will not pursue criminal charges against any personnel in connection with the death," according to a statement issued on April 10 to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

U.S. Navy SEAL candidates from class 284 participate in Hell Week at the Naval Special Warfare Center at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in San Diego, California. (U.S. Navy photo)

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Lovelace family," said Hulin in the statement. "No loss of life in training is an acceptable loss."

A safety review into the incident that had been put on pause by the criminal investigation will now begin, according to the Navy.

The 21-year-old Lovelace died during Combat Swimmer Orientation, a test that takes place in the first week of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training to assess a SEAL candidate's swimming abilities.

Students tread water and perform what the Navy says are survival skills that include removing a swim mask, uniform, and their boots.

The county medical examiner's autopsy report revealed that a SEAL instructor repeatedly dunked Lovelace and that the student's drowning was exacerbated by a heart condition.

"To honor those who have fallen in combat we must provide the most realistic and operationally relevant training possible. To honor those who have fallen in training we must effectively mitigate the risks of that training," said Capt. Jay Hennessey, Commander, Naval Special Warfare Training Center.

"[Naval Special Warfare] training has been refined over more than 50 years, informed throughout by lessons learned in combat overseas as well as in training at home. We learn not only from our successes, but also from operational and training failures, mistakes and accidents. While these tragic occasions are infrequent, they greatly impact our small close-knit force and magnify the responsibility we feel to our teammates who have paid the ultimate price."

U.S. Navy SEALs splash into the water from a combat rubber raiding craft attached to an 11-meter rigid hull inflatble boat, during a capabilities exercise, at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek - Fort Story.  (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Gary L. Johnson III.)

The medical examiner's probe indicated that Lovelace suffered from an anomalous coronary artery, which might have contributed to sudden cardiac death during the intensive training exercise. Although Lovelace appeared conscious when pulled out of the pool, witnesses said his [skin] had turned purple, his lips blue.

Navy officials have long contended that the medical examiner's homicide ruling meant only that Lovelace died "at the hands of another" and did not necessarily suggest a crime had been committed.

Lovelace was from Crestview, Florida. Navy officials briefed his father in Florida on April 8.

"We have maintained contact with the Lovelace family," said Naval Special Warfare spokesman Capt. Jason Salata. "Our primary point of contact, is Seaman Lovelace's father. He is designated as his official next of kin, as a courtesy the Navy has also reached out to Seaman Lovelace's siblings and offered counseling and other services. As part of the prosecutorial review of this case, the father's input was carefully considered."

In an email to the Union-Tribune, Salata said that the criminal probe followed Pentagon protocols standard to any death that occurs in training. Led by the Navy Region Southwest's chief trial counsel, a team of prosecutors with no ties to the SEALs reviewed the probe's findings before they were forwarded to Naval Special Warfare's commanders.

When asked by the Union-Tribune if any SEAL instructors would receive letters of reprimand or counseling statements for their role in the incident, Salata wrote that no other action "is being taken on anyone in connection with the case."

Students in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL class 279 participate in a surf passage exercise during the first phase of training at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Surf passage is one of many physically strenuous exercises that BUD/S class 279 will take part in during the seven weeks of first phase. (U.S. Navy photo by Kyle Gahlau)

Salata said that the Navy intends to make the probe's findings public once criminal investigators close their case.

Lovelace was only in the first week of a student's six-month odyssey to become a SEAL. A notoriously difficult course, only about a quarter of the candidates make it through without dropping out.

In the wake of his drowning, Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command paused the program to review and reinforce protocols for pre-training briefs, emergency action, and all in-water instruction procedures, Navy officials told the Union-Tribune.

The Navy added instruction on the signs and symptoms of water training injures and lifesaving procedures.

Today, two additional safety observers are in the water with the class, plus two safety swimmers at the water's edge to remove struggling students quickly. The instructor-student ratio now is one to seven; it was one to 10.

In 2016, 75 students could be in the water at one time. Now, no more than 49 can enter the pool.

He was at least the fifth SEAL student to die during training over the past three decades.

In 1988, John Joseph Tomlinson, 22, from Altoona, Pa., died of hypothermia near the end of a 5 1/2 -mile ocean swim off Coronado in the 17th week of the 25-week course.

Ten years later, Gordon Racine Jr., 25, of Houston died during a pool exercise in his first month of training.

In 2001, Lt. John Anthony Skop Jr., 29, of Buffalo, N.Y., died during a "Hell Week" swim.

Three years later, Boatswain Mate 1st Class Rob Vetter, 30, died at a Coronado hospital days after he collapsed during a conditioning run in the second week of the program.

Humor

The truth about cell phones in Basic Training

Thank god you got out when you did! The moment you received your DD-214, it was officially an end of an era. Hopefully, your branch won't fall victim like all those other, weaker branches did. It's Lord of the Flies in here.

New recruits are arriving in droves and they're pulling out their cell phones to record themselves talking back to their drill sergeants. If the drill sergeants have a problem with it, they whip out their stress cards, go back to eating their Tide Pods, and continue listening to their music (which, coincidentally, has gotten progressively worse since your generation, too).

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

5 reasons your troops are more important than promotion

If there's one complaint common across the military, it's that commanders too often care more about their careers than the well-being of their troops. It's problematic when higher-ups are willing to put lower enlisted through hell if it means they look good at the end of the day.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

'Operation Cure Boredom' is a funny, unrepentant look back at life in the 1990s Air Force

The following is an excerpt from the first book by Air Force veteran and Hollywood writer Dan Martin. Titled Operation Cure Boredom, it's a hilarious collection of short stories chronicling the adventures of Martin's 1990-1994 enlistment in the world's best Air Force.

This chapter, called "Guest on the Range," is about the extraordinary lengths Martin went to in order to qualify on the firing range as a junior enlisted Crew Chief.

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

The top 6 reasons people decide to join the infantry

Deciding to join the military is a huge step for anyone looking to make a life-altering change. One of the most appealing aspects of becoming a member of the armed forces is the vast array of professional opportunities the service offers.

You can sign up, ship out, and, within a few short months, be guarding a military installation as your newfound brothers- and sisters-in-arms sleep.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

These high-tech glasses could change how sailors train

Training has evolved over the years but the core elements have always remained the same. There's an instructor and a bunch of students. They go over material, both in theory and in practice, mastering the skills required by the job. But no matter how good the teacher, students will always need a refresher from time to time. So, that means it's time to go back to school — or does it?

Now, mixed-reality technology — including smart glasses — could change the way sailors learn the skills they need to serve.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

6 US conflicts that would (probably) make terrible video games

When developers set out to make video games, their focus should always primarily be on crafting a fun and engaging experience. Oftentimes, you'll see video games set far in the future so that developers can place an arsenal of advanced, sci-fi weaponry in the hands of the player — because it's fun. Other times, they'll take cues from real wars and toss the player directly into the heat of a historical battle — because that's fun, too.

Keep reading... Show less
Tactical

How to start a fire with only one hand

Heading out into the wilderness for a camping trip is exhilarating and refreshing. Starting a campfire and roasting some marshmallows under the stars is a great way to get in touch with Mother Nature. Although the idea of spending a night in the great outdoors sounds incredible, campers should always remember to bring specific tools and learn important survival skills in the event they sustain an injury and help is far, far away.

It gets cold out there at night, so it's important to know the basics of starting a fire to keep warm — even in the dire circumstance that you've been injured. Do you know how to start a fire with just one hand? You never know — this skill might just save your life.

Keep reading... Show less