This article is provided courtesy of DefenseWatch, the official magazine for Soldiers For The Truth (SFTT), a grass-roots educational organization started by a small group of concerned veterans and citizens to inform the public, the Congress, and the media on the decline in readiness of our armed forces. Inspired by the outspoken idealism of retired Colonel David Hackworth, SFTT aims to give our service people, veterans, and retirees a clear voice with the media, Congress, the public and their services.
Imagine you are walking on a third floor corner balcony without rails that overlooks a large pool on a windy afternoon. Then try to imagine yourself suddenly, without any warning, falling off the balcony and into the pool.
If I told you that your only chance to survive the fall into the water depended on your mental and physical abilities to manually inflate a life jacket that you were wearing that I gave you, do you think you would be able to inflate it?
What if I told you that I let you wear that life jacket while I let most other balcony-walkers under my charge to wear a newer, and more expensive, life jacket that automatically inflated when it came in contact with water? How would that decision of mine make you feel? If I were you, I would probably think of that memorable line from one of the Rambo movies: "Rambo, what mean expendable?"
On a windy (40 knot) day last December, a young married Marine lost his life when he fell overboard from the USS Belleau Wood en route to San Diego following a six-month deployment. A subsequent Marine Corps investigation revealed some troubling facts about shipboard safety flaws that ultimately led to, or at least heavily contributed to, this unnecessary tragedy.
First of all, the inventory on ships and with deploying Marine squadrons includes both old and new life jackets. The old life jackets require the wearer to manually inflate them, while the new life jackets are automatically inflated upon contact with saltwater. The Marine who drowned was issued and was wearing one of the old life jackets when he fell overboard. He went from standing on a dry flight deck to falling at least 30 feet into the ocean in a matter of seconds. According to a July 7 San Diego Union-Tribune article, "Marines Want Overhaul of Man-Overboard Policy":
"A lookout noticed a movement and then a splash in the ocean. He saw a body rise to the surface, float face down, then sink. [The] body was not recovered."
The article also stated that the Marine investigation found that while most of the sailors working on flight decks had the new life jackets, most of the Marine's aircraft maintenance unit had the old versions. The cost of the new life jackets, at about $250 each, has been an issue for the Navy and Marine Corps. Despite planned acquisition of the new life jackets being a "longtime goal for the Marines," only those in high-risk jobs currently have the jackets.
Besides the self-inflating life jackets, the Navy has saltwater-activated man-overboard transmitters that can be attached to the life jackets that emit electronic signals back to the ship's bridge to alert the ship's watchstanders. The Navy began experimenting with the transmitters back in 1999, and the Belleau Wood had 250 transmitters on hand at the time of the tragedy. The Marine, whose body was never found despite a 57-hour search in excess of a thousand square nautical miles, was not issued a transmitter for he was not considered to be at high risk for falling.
The Navy's long-term goal is for all personnel working on flight decks to get transmitters to wear with their life jackets.
Lastly, the investigation addressed the Navy's policy about lowering or removing "shipboard catwalk ladder stanchions," which are retractable poles on the stairs that provide a three-foot protective railing when raised, for ships operating at sea. The drowned Marine was on a landing that had no railing when he fell overboard. (On the Belleau Wood and similar ships, crewmen lower or remove the railing to protect aircraft during flight operations.)
To paraphrase "Dr. Phil" McGraw: "Let's get real …. "
If you ever did a poorly executed "belly-flop," or miscalculated a dive into your local pool and landed flat on your back on top of the water, then you know it is absurd to expect someone to unexpectedly fall three stories into the ocean and still have the presence of mind or physical ability to manually inflate a life jacket. Such a fall with an unplanned landing is all about shock and survival first, despite the best training in the world (and I do not believe our training is as realistic as it needs to be for our flight deck sailors and Marines).
As a career Marine officer who has logged many miles running on amphibious ship flight decks while underway at sea, I believe I have a good understanding of who has high-risk jobs on those flight decks: anyone who works on those flight decks, especially during flight operations. To arbitrarily decide that one flight deck job is high-risk and another non-high-risk is ridiculous, unless it is relative to who is wearing adequate life-saving gear and who is not. Wearing manually inflated life jackets without man-overboard transmitters is definitely high-risk from my perspective.
How long does it take the Navy to do limited experiments (not involving all the intended beneficiaries of those experiments) with potential life-saving technologies before they decide whether or not to field them? In the case of these man-overboard transmitters, the answer seems to be about four years. If it takes them that long to make a decision, they may be suffering from "analysis paralysis."
I can certainly appreciate the Marine Corps officials' longtime goal for getting the self-inflating, $250 life jackets for their flight deck Marines. But the question arises: If getting these life jackets is a stated goal, why is $250 apparently too much to spend to turn that goal into a reality?
The Navy obviously believes its aircraft are more valuable than the flight deck personnel responsible for the maintenance and operation of those aircraft. How else can you explain removing structural safety measures (railings) for personnel inadequately outfitted with outdated life jackets and without available rescue-enhancing technologies in the name of protecting those aircraft?
Deciding to walk out on a railing-less third floor corner balcony is consciously taking a chance. Deciding to walk or stand close to the railing-less edge is an individual risk. Consciously expecting and directing subordinates to work on railing-less third floor corner balconies in frequently windy conditions without the most advanced and readily available individual safety measures, is gambling with people's lives. When you choose to gamble by consciously and willfully rolling the dice, you also accept the responsibility for the consequences should the dice come up with "snake-eyes."
Unfortunately, it appears that neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps are willingly accepting responsibility for this tragedy. Their condolences and their investigations provide little consolation for the family of the Marine who drowned. Perhaps before officials delay or deny another potential life-saving safety measure-related decision because it is deemed too expensive or not cost-effective, they should reflect on the thoughts of the drowned Marine's father and put themselves in that father's shoes:
"To us, he's not gone," the father told the Union-Tribune. "He was out there for six months, and it just seems like he's still out there. ... We wonder every day where he's at, or if something else happened."
Lt. Col. Matthew Dodd USMC is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributing Editor Lt. Col. Matthew Dodd is the pen name of an active duty Marine Corps officer. He can be reached at email@example.com.