When an amphibious assault vehicle sank off the California coast in July 2020, causing the drowning deaths of eight Marines and a Navy corpsman, lawmakers and public officials demanded accountability, calling for better vehicle and water safety training.
But in terms of prevention, Sgt. Kenneth Wilson wants to raise public concern about a quieter string of tragedies: individual Marines drowning off-duty or in training, often simply because their swim skills were not a match for the conditions they encountered.
Bases with abundant ocean access are particularly vulnerable: Stars and Stripes reported in May that 39 American troops have drowned off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, alone since 2000, with nine deaths since 2020 and five in just 2021.
“Especially in Okinawa, Japan, you know, Marines have a little alcohol in their system, and they want to touch the water,” Wilson, a Marine Corps water survival instructor with California’s Camp Pendleton’s 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, told Marine Corps Times. “And then no one sees them again.”
Wilson said he’s been dismayed, over the course of his time as an instructor, to see how little mastery the average Marine has in swimming ― and worse ― how little the Marine Corps requires troops to improve their swim skills.
A major weakness
Swim qualification is a prerequisite for service; to meet the lowest standard, recruits have to shed their gear, jump off a raised platform, keep their head above water for four minutes, and swim 25 meters with their packs.
For intermediate and advanced qualifications, required for certain military occupational specialties, Marines swim for longer ― up to 250 meters and 10 minutes of treading water ― and execute water rescue skills.
For basic water survival, Wilson said Marines are coached on how to pass the test, but not given the skills actually needed to swim competently or survive a real water emergency.
“When you do swim qual, that’s a controlled environment,” Wilson said. “So you learn enough to survive in a controlled environment. But what happens when you really hit the real thing?”
At Marine Corps Training Command in Quantico, Virginia, some quiet efforts are now underway to address Marines’ swimming proficiency and access to water training. But the Corps repeatedly has refused to provide details on efforts and how it supports the objective of training Marines who can swim confidently.
“We need more swimming pools,” Maj. Gen. Dale Alford, then commander of Marine Corps Training Command, said in a May interview, “We’ve talked to the commandant [Gen. David Berger], and we’re trying to figure out how to build more tanks, to have Marines in the pools more often than we have in the past.”
Alford retired following a 37-year career in late September.
Marine Corps Training and Education Command repeatedly declined to provide responses to Marine Corps Times about its plans regarding improving swim proficiency, instead inviting the publication to submit a Freedom of Information Act request. A public information request submitted Aug. 17 ― asking for the number of swim training facilities in the Marine Corps; the number of qualified swim instructors; percentage of Marines in each swim qualification category; and percentage of swim qual failures ― has yet to receive any response.
Marine Corps leaders at various levels have expressed interest in the past about making Marines better swimmers.
In 2017, then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told troops in Spain that he was considering adding swim qualification to promotion cutting scores to emphasize the importance of water proficiency. That ultimately never happened. And during an Infantry Marine Corps pilot program in April 2021, Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, began their capstone test with a swimming scenario ― an innovation leaders hailed as a fresh focus on water skills.
But water survival instructors who spoke with Marine Corps Times expressed frustration at how little of a priority swimming actually appears to be.
Sgt. Jonathan Tilas, another Marine Corps water survival instructor at 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, said being able to do the elementary backstroke while under a trainer’s supervision just doesn’t equate to being able to swim effectively amid chaos and crisis.
“Basic swim qual is not sufficient enough; you can pass that swim qual without really knowing how to swim,” he said. “The whole point of that is so you can survive not being on the boat you’re supposed to be on, right? The current basic swim qual is not sufficient for that.”
Tilas likened swimming to shooting: The Marine Corps gets a lot of recruits in the door who have zero experience with either. But for shooting, inexperienced recruits have “Grass Week,” where they can work with instructors and get comfortable with weapons before they face an evaluation.
While the 13-week boot camp cycle also includes a “Swim Week,” Tilas and Wilson both said their experience indicates there’s far less one-on-one instruction during this time, and much more emphasis on simply passing the elements of the test.
“It would be good if Marines had time where they could go and be at the pool for a week working with the [Marine Corps Water Survival Instructors] in the lead-up to any of the swim quals,” Tilas said.
Once Marines get to the fleet, they’re technically supposed to stay current on water survival qualifications: Water Survival-Basic requires requalification every two years, while Intermediate and Advanced levels require a retest every three.
Tilas feels there’s little accountability for many Marines to ensure those retests happen, and no system in place to cycle Marines through skills refresher training.
“I was the only MCIWS in my unit at one point,” Tilas said, using the acronym for water survival instructors. “And some staff sergeant would tell me, ‘Dude, I’ve been in for like 15 years … I haven’t ever gone to the pool.’”
As for resources, Wilson feels that neither the swimming equipment nor the manpower the Marine Corps provides telegraphs a true commitment to skills development. While the service requires one Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor for every 50 Marines, he said, sometimes a battalion of 700 will only have one water survival instructor assigned.
Wilson, who is Black, noted the longstanding racial disparity in swim proficiency rates, due to a lack of access to pools and swim education.
But across the board, he said, swimming is a major weakness for the Corps.
“If you were to take an audit, and go to 10 different units in 10 different places, and just pick 10 different random Marines with different demographics,” he said, “The fail rate is going to be higher than anyone anticipates. No matter what you project.”