Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 7, out of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., ride in formation during a battalion motorcycle ride Dec. 12. Motorcycle accidents remain a leading cause of off-duty deaths in the Marine Corps. (Lance Cpl. Ali Azimi / Marine Corps)
Fewer Marines died from on- and off-duty accidents in fiscal 2012 than in any other year of the past decade, but the Corps continues to struggle with accidental deaths.
Sixty-four Marines died from mishaps not related to combat action, according to recently released statistics from the Naval Safety Center. That's the lowest number since 2002, when 66 Marines died.
The number of off-duty deaths continued its steady decline, from 121 in fiscal 2005 to 38 this past year. But the number of on-duty fatal mishaps that were not the result of enemy action continued to grow, from a low of 11 in fiscal 2008 to 26 this past year. More than half of those on-duty deaths resulted from aviation mishaps.
Despite the overall drop in fatalities, the Marine Corps continues to see a higher rate of accidental deaths, relative to its size, than the other services. For example, five more Marines died accidentally in fiscal 2012 than did sailors, despite the fact that the Navy has about 317,600 active-duty personnel compared to about 195,400 Marines. The Navy had just 59 accidental deaths in fiscal 2012, including 10 on duty and 49 off duty. Marine officials say the numbers show that Marines are more vulnerable to at-risk behavior, and that is a product of the service's demographic makeup.
"The Corps, historically, has a younger age force when compared to other services and they are definitely ‘risk takers' when joining the Corps," according to written responses from Marine Corps safety officials.
This past year's accidental death toll was far lower than in 2003, when 123 Marines died in nonhostile incidents. And that year was followed by several more deadly ones. While the war in Iraq was raging, many Marines were falling victim not to enemy fire, but to motorcycle accidents, drownings, car accidents and other mostly preventable accidents at home, highlighting the need for renewed safety training.
"Many of the on- and off-duty fatalities come down to poor decision-making," said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.
Marine leadership reacted aggressively in an effort to keep Marines safe on the home front, introducing initiatives that ranged from motorcycle safety courses to safety stand downs that focused on good decision-making while on leave and liberty.
Steady improvement followed, although concerns remain about motorcycle accidents. But, as a percentage of overall deaths, off-duty and recreational mishaps account for fewer casualties each year. Off-duty mishaps, responsible for nearly 85 percent of accidental deaths as recently as 2008, are now down to just 59 percent, suggesting that safety initiatives are succeeding in curbing some risky behaviors.
Alcohol, other factors
Perhaps not surprisingly, a substantial number of off-duty mishaps — including personal motor vehicle, pedestrian and recreational accidents — involved alcohol.
In nearly half of all cases — 45 percent — alcohol was at least partially to blame.
Leadership has rolled out an array of initiatives to combat alcohol abuse, including random Breathalyzer tests and intervention programs.
Under the Alcohol Screening Program, which began Jan. 1, Marines will be given a random breath test twice a year when they report for work. A 0.01 blood-alcohol level could lead to further testing, alcohol abuse counseling or, in severe cases, discipline.
And under the Prime for Life program, Marines cited for driving under the influence or other alcohol infractions will receive early counseling aimed at getting them back on track.
Alcohol isn't the only risk factor contributing to motor vehicle and recreational accidents. Safety officials say fatigue, speeding, not wearing seatbelts, distracted driving and not accounting for inclement weather are concerns.
Motorcycle-related deaths remain stubbornly consistent. The Corps now requires motorcycle safety training for Marines who drive on two wheels, and that has helped reduce the number of accidental deaths from a high of 25 in 2008 to just 15 in fiscal 2012. But the number of motorcycle deaths has hovered around that number for several years now.
Some Marines fail to comply with the Corps' training requirement, but most do. In fiscal 2012, 20 percent of Marines involved in deadly motorcycle crashes had no training; 33 percent completed level 1 training and 47 percent completed level 2 training. Level 1 training, the Basic Riders Course for most Marines, teaches fundamental braking, turning and low-speed maneuvering skills. Level 2 training, either the Military Sport Bike Rider Course or the Experienced Rider Course, ensures Marines can handle a bike in common, real-world scenarios. A level 3 course, which covers advanced maneuvering, is also available and can include a track day with professional riders.
Those courses help to combat the three main factors in motorcycle accidents.
"Alcohol, speeding and ability to control the motorcycle continue to be the problem," according to safety officials.
Safety officials say they are working to develop new ways to drive home the inherent dangers of motorcycle riding.
"We are currently finding ways to reduce mishaps; our challenge is to have zero mishaps," according to written responses from safety officials. "Remember that riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous and our demographics, when compared to other services, are younger. We continue to stress motorcycle training and riding safety."
The number of Marines who die off duty in cars or trucks has sharply declined, reaching its lowest point in a decade. In fiscal 2012, 14 Marines were killed in automotive accidents — excluding motorcycles — compared to 23 in 2011.
While the overall number of deaths is decreasing, on-duty deaths are on a steady rise. In 2012, 26 Marines died accidentally while on duty.
A series of aviation mishaps are largely responsible for the jump in on-duty deaths from 18 in 2011. They include: a CH-53D Super Stallion crash in Afghanistan on Jan. 19 that killed six Marines, a Feb. 22 collision involving two helicopters in California that killed seven people and an April 11 MV-22 Osprey crash in Morocco that killed two Marines. Those three accidents account for more than half of the year's on-duty fatalities.
Electrocution has accounted for an increasingly large number of on-duty deaths. That can occur when a radio operator's whip antenna comes into contact with low-hanging wires. Two Marines were killed on patrol last year in Afghanistan when their antennas struck power lines. In another case, two were killed by wires near a generator. In an effort to mitigate the danger, Marine leaders are intent on providing non-conductive antennas to reduce the chances of electrocution when they contact power lines.