Congress may soon introduce several programs to make military vehicle training safer, in the wake of a report that took the Army and Marine Corps to task over routine safety lapses that led to thousands of vehicle accidents and over 100 deaths.
Between 2010 and 2019 the two services combined for 3,753 tactical vehicle mishaps that resulted in the deaths of 123 service members, a July report from the Government Accountability Office said.
The report, conducted at the request of Congress, found both services were short of safety officers and had inconsistent policies for licensing vehicle operators that may have led to more accidents.
The report provided nine recommendations to the services that would increase the overall vehicle training safety in the two services.
Michael McDowell, an advocate for increased training safety in the military, said he has worked with Congress to get six amendments added to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to improve training safety and hopefully save lives.
One amendment would require the Army and Marine Corps to create a plan to fully comply with the recommendations within 180 days of the act being signed into law.
“Ensuring this readiness involves tough, realistic training and this training can inherently carry risk,” Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine Corps spokesman told Marine Corps times in an email.
“However, the Marine Corps works diligently to mitigate these risks where able in order to ensure that Marines and Sailors train safely and effectively,” he added.
Another proposed amendment to the 2022 NDAA would require the services to better define the job of vehicle commander, ensure they assign an appropriate number of range safety advisors and ensure that licensing programs and follow training have a “well-defined process with specific criteria.”
The amendment would also require the military to evaluate how range personnel identify and communicate hazards to training, the amendment introduced by Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan in September, said.
McDowell said the failure to properly point out hazards played a role in his son death.
Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell was commanding a Light Armored Vehicle in 2019 on Camp Pendleton, California during a training exercise when they rolled into an area with high vegetation.
The vegetation blinded the crew to a large ditch in their path. When the vehicle hit the ditch, it began to roll over.
Since that day, Michael McDowell has dedicated his life to holding the military accountable for preventable vehicle accidents.
One amendment would create joint safety council comprised of the second highest officer in each branch, each branch’s director of safety and several other members, the amendment reads.
The council will collect safety data from around the Department of Defense, update regulations and doctrine based on that safety data and provide oversight to ensure each branch is complying to the updated safety regulations, according to the amendment.
To compliment the safety council one amendment would require the secretary of defense to create a proposal to establish an independent review board.
Another proposed amendment to the 2020 NDAA is named the 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell Safety in Armed Forces Equipment Act of 2021, after Michael McDowell’s son.
The bill would launch a five-year pilot program that would require the Departments of the Army and Navy to put data recorders in tactical vehicles that will track driver proficiency and record near-miss accidents and has been compared to black boxes in commercial airliners.
“The safety of our young men and women in uniform, particularly during training, must be our top priority. Tactical vehicle accidents are preventable if we improve our training and ensure a culture of safety within the ranks,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D- Md.) said in a press release.
Brown introduced the house version of the bill with Rep. Robert Wittman (R-Va.) as the cosponsor.
The senate version of the amendment was introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and cosponsored by his colleague Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
“Preventable accidents are just that- preventable. By equipping tactical vehicles with black boxes capable of recording key datapoints, we give Army and Marine Corps commanders the data they need to better inform their decision-making processes and training in order to prevent future tactical vehicle accidents,” Wittman said in the release.
McDowell said the devices would do more than just collect data but provide real-time improved safety to vehicle training.
“It goes beyond black boxes. It is not simply data collection before and after, it is tilt meters, it’s adding anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control,” McDowell said.
McDowell said the idea to name the bill after his son came from Brown and was quickly agreed to by the other lawmakers involved in the bill.
“No family should have to suffer the pain and loss that the McDowell family has,” Van Hollen said in a press release.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who defend our country — and to their families — and we must do everything we can to prioritize their safety at home and abroad.”
Casualty assistance program
A final potential amendment moves away from safety issues and focuses on casualty assistance officers, who are responsible for providing families of dead service members with immediate and long-term aid.
In the Marine Corps casualty assistance officers are assigned after a Marine dies.
Potential casualty assistance officers are required to complete annual training on how to be a casualty assistance officer, but the duty is secondary to whatever their main job is.
The amendment would establish a working group to review and reform the casualty assistance program to ensure servicemembers are better trained to be casualty assistance officers.
The working group would include the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, high ranking officers from all military branches, senior civilian employees of each branch and the department of defense, the director of the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency, the director of the Defense Health Agency and the chief chaplain for every branch of service.
McDowell said he hopes to get someone representing gold star families on the panel.
“We’re pushing very hard to have that fix and we’re not happy,” McDowell said.
“If they want to reform the program they need to get feedback from families,” he added.