As a parent or partner of someone in the military, you are more likely to receive the terrifying “call” only to learn that your loved one was not killed in combat, but rather in an accident. As we first reported in February, a very large number of accidents are with armored cars – and they happen during training.
First Lieutenant Conor McDowell, a Marine platoon commander, was on a training mission in a light armored vehicle at Camp Pendleton, California, in May 2019, when he crashed into an unmarked brush-covered trench.
Leslie Stahl: Describe what happened.
Susan Flanigan: He called to his men, “Coup, coup, coup.” He pushed his gunners in the tower next to him under the shield but couldn’t get off in time and veered into that hole, rolled, and crushed him.
Connor was the only child of Susan Flanigan and Michael McDowell.
Michael McDowell: At first I thought that’s what happens when you train like you mean to fight. But when we went to San Diego to bring it back, I had a few idle moments in the hotel. I searched Google for “rolling” and “army”. And I found out that in Pendleton a month ago, one of the Marine attackers had died in a coup. So I went back in Google, “army” etc. And suddenly I saw a whole series of deaths in military vehicle overturning, of all kinds: Humvees, light armored vehicles, Bradley fighting vehicles. Then I realized that this is not a single incident. This is a methodological problem.
Leslie Stahl: During training?
Michael McDowell: During training. I can accept people who die in combat. But if you’re training in your country and needlessly die in preventable accidents, this is a huge problem to fix.
To fix this, McDowell kept digging, and what he uncovered, he says, was so dangerous but routinely neglected that it led to a scathing report by the Government Accountability Office: The Government Accountability Office found nearly 4,000 such incidents in the Army and Navy Corps from 2010 to 2019, killing 123 people, nearly two-thirds of them due to coups. And shockingly: most of it happens in broad daylight, on normal roads, and even in parking lots.
Michael McDowell: It’s the tragedy of low expectations. That people are expected to die in training.
Leslie Stahl: Are you saying that, they expect it? what do you say?
Michael McDowell: That’s the price of being a Marine or a Marine.
Leslie Stahl: In training?
Michael McDowell: Yes.
Leslie Stahl: They expect–
Michael McDowell: “Training is dangerous. These things happen.”
But they don’t just “happen”. The Government Accountability Office concluded that there was often “improper oversight.” That the drivers were poorly trained and the vehicles – they were not adequately inspected. Some of the accidents involved multiple factors, as was the case with Christopher Bobby Gnemm, a Navy sailor.
There were cries of joy from Bobby’s mother, Nancy, when he surprised her at Christmas.
A year and a half later, in the summer of 2020, he and 15 Marines were training outside Camp Pendleton in amphibious assault vehicles — or AAVs — giant armored ships used by Marines on land and at sea. His stepfather, Peter Vienna, says the Marines had no business dispatching the AAVs used in his son’s training.
Peter Vienna: They are both 40 years old and have been in a terrible state. And instead of asking for better condition AAVs, which were around – there were plenty of them. They’ve got those, they’re all in bad shape.
Peter Ostrovsky: They’re sitting in the parking lot at Camp Pendleton, baking in the sun. They are deteriorating.
Jack Ryan, son of Peter Ostrovsky, was on that mission, too.
Peter Ostrovsky: A week before the mission, we were talking on the phone. He made the comment that “AAVs sink all the time.” They were called the “floating coffin.”
Leslie Stahl: Do you think he was worried?
Peter Ostrovsky: Absolutely.
Two AAVs malfunctioned and the car meant for their sons had an engine leak. However the mission was not aborted.
Leslie Stahl: What’s the motivation to move forward with defective equipment?
Peter Ostrovsky: They’re trying to stick to a schedule. [To] Stay on time.
Peter Vienna: Our children’s safety came second after completing a training assignment. This is not a fight. This is not a “must do it now”. This is a training. There should have been a pause at many points.
But 16 young men rallied to the AAV as seen in a video a Marine sent to his father. almost immediately began to absorb water: ankle level; The calf level is the seat level, where the AAV systems have failed one by one.
Peter Vienna: The communications system was broken. They were in the dark using their cell phone lights to try to see.
Leslie Stahl: Wait, wait, wait. The lights are not working?
Peter Vienna: The safety light that was supposed to work didn’t work.
Leslie Stahl: Were there lifeboats?
Peter Vienna: No, so there are supposed to be two safety boats in the water. They went with nothing.
This is the AAV at the bottom of the ocean in an underwater video we obtained through the Freedom of Information Request. Seven men survived. Nine did not. Most of them turned out to have had little or no training in how to escape.
Leslie Stahl: That doesn’t make sense.
Peter Vienna: There are a lot of them that don’t make sense. They had been taking in the water for 45 minutes and yet they were still at the bottom of the ocean with all they had – their equipment still, their body armor.
Leslie Stahl: And that – what should they have done – should have paid off?
Peter Vienna: They didn’t know what to do. They were all looking at each other, like, “What does this mean, what do we do?”
Leslie Stahl: You know, the Marine Corps did its own investigation, and the Marine Corps concluded that this, and I’ll use a direct quote, was “preventable.”
Peter Ostrovsky: The incompetence from top to bottom, the lack of preparation, the lack of a duty to really care for our children – it was just awful.
Leslie Stahl: Can you sue the military or the leaders for what happened?
PETER VIENNA: There’s a Ferris Doctrine – that makes that impossible.
The Ferris Doctrine forbids anyone from suing the military for anything that happens to service members on the job, no matter how egregious.
Nancy Vienna: The most important thing for me was that these boys weren’t protected. I have this vision in my head – AAV nightmares go down. What was his last word?
This was one of the worst training accidents in Marine Corps history. But incidents persist, and the Government Accountability Office states that less serious incidents are likely to be underreported. Christian Avila Taveras, an Army combat medic, was on training ground in 2018 when one of the vehicles broke down, forcing his vehicle to be towed.
Cristian Avila Taveras: That’s probably around 1:30 in the morning. It’s dark, it’s raining, it’s muddy. The car we were towing skidded and hit us. And so we rolled. I was kicked out of the car, then the car landed on top of me, tying me from the waist down.
Leslie Stahl: So this is a giant monster car roll over you?
Christian Avila Taveras: Yes. above me.
His left leg had to be amputated above the knee, his right leg was badly damaged, and he spent the next two years in rehabilitation, learning how to walk again.
And we learned that there was another coup during training in the same place on the same day as Avila Taveras.
The military told us there were fewer car deaths last year, saying that most deaths were caused by human error and inexperience; Nearly 1 in 5 conscripts join the military without a driver’s licence.
The Pentagon and the Marine Corps declined our interview requests even though the new defense budget provides for several new safety provisions, and AAVs will not be used in water exercises.
But there are more steps the military could take they haven’t, including relatively inexpensive upgrades to the vehicle implicated in most accidents: the Humvee.
Test footage conducted by IMMI, the safety systems supplier, shows what can happen inside a Humvee in rolling over.
But watch: Drivers can stand a better chance when Humvees are updated with IMMI restrictions and airbags.
One reason there are so many Humvee crashes is the numbers: the military alone uses over 100,000. Another reason is engineering: its high center of gravity makes it vulnerable to tipping.
Because Humvees were easy targets for IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army added additional armor that made them less stable.
We were invited by Ricardo Devins, a small military contractor, to wear a demonstration of how unstable these vehicles can be while turning.
We were traveling less than 30 miles an hour. The two yellow bars were there to keep us from tipping over.
Most Humvees do not have antilock brakes or electronic stability control that prevents overturning. But eight years ago, Ricardo developed it for the Humvee. Ricardo’s boss is Chet Gryczan.
Chet Grykzan: Let’s do the same with the system running, please?
With the system turned on: all wheels remained flat on the ground.
The system works fine, it is now mandatory in every new Humvee. But what about already used Humvees? Well, Ricardo devised a safety kit that can be installed for about $16,000 per vehicle, on about 54,000 older Humvees.
You can make 10 or more old vehicles safer for the price of one new car. However, the MOD is asking for a lot of money for new Humvees, but only a fraction of what is needed to modify old vehicles.
Chet Gryczan: If the budget is approved today as the numbers are, we’ll have enough funding for about 545 cars.
Leslie Stahl: 545 vehicles out of 54,000? This is it?
Chet Grykzan: That’s it, yeah. This represents about 1% of the fleet. At this rate, it would take 100 years to get the fleet ready.
Leslie Stahl: A recent letter to the Pentagon from several members of Congress endorsing your toolkit. They calculated that the difference in cost between putting in your kit and building a new vehicle is about $13 billion. It looks like he’s not thinking.
Chet Grykzan: Yes. Why don’t you do that?
The Chairman of the Armed Forces Subcommittee on Readiness, Congressman John Garamendi, told us that Congress and the Pentagon’s preference for new promotions “often depends on maintaining defense contractors.”
Leslie Stahl: Have you taken any steps to say “nobody should be in a Humvee that doesn’t have ABS”?
Michael McDowell: We tried and you lobbied. We want to increase safety in training. Because people die needlessly in preventable accidents. It won’t cost much. But it must be done. This is for the American people to put pressure on members of Congress.
After we first aired this report, Congress increased Army funding to install a modified safety kit from $10 million to more than $190 million, allowing for an upgrade of 11,000 Humvees, scheduling work to begin this summer.
Shachar Bar-On production. Co-producer, Jinsol Jung. Broadcasting Assistant, Ren Woodson. Edited by Matthew Leaf.