SAN DIEGO — Basic training for Navy SEALs is designed to be a grueling process to find the U.S. military's strongest fighters and turn them into an elite force able to dive into the world's deadliest places.
Seaman James Derek Lovelace, 21, was in his first week of the six-month program in Coronado, near San Diego, when he died May 6 during a pool exercise. His lips turning blue and his face purple, the trainee dressed in full gear was treading water when his instructor pushed him underwater at least twice, an autopsy report said.
A medical examiner ruled Wednesday that those actions made Lovelace's drowning death a homicide. The highly unusual decision is serious and could affect the SEALs' basic training practices, said former Navy Capt. Lawrence Brennan, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School who served as a Navy judge advocate.
The death raises questions about the safety of the strenuous training, which some argue is necessary to create warriors with missions like the one that took down Osama bin Laden. It opens concerns about where to draw the line between rigorous training to weed out the weakest and abuse that leads to deaths.
Lovelace, of Crestview, Florida, was beginning the toughest phase of basic training that culminates in "Hell Week" — when trainees spend 5 ½ days running, climbing, swimming in frigid waters and performing other drills on a total of four hours of sleep. On average, 75 percent of trainees drop out afterward.
The autopsy found Lovelace had an enlarged heart and called it a contributing factor but said he died of drowning. His medical records show he had been prescribed Singulair, which treats asthma and allergies.
So far, the instructor has not been accused of wrongdoing. The investigation could lead to a number of military charges — from dereliction of duty for not following safety procedures up to homicide, Brennan said.
"I think it's sort of a warning to revisit training procedures and make sure they are fully understood and implemented," the former Navy captain said.
But the harsh drills, which can appear to border on torture, also help prepare fighters who will likely encounter much more treacherous situations on their missions, Brennan added.
"Waterboarding has been done on aviators going into combat because it was expected the enemies could do this to them," he said. "But perhaps in this case, someone did do something wrong."
Several former SEALs told The Associated Press that the instructor's actions did not strike them as unusual.
Keith David said he felt the training was safe though instructors were tough during pool exercises and there was intense pressure not to give up. During a drill that tested underwater stamina, "guys pushed themselves so hard to stay down, they would force themselves to black out, but instructors would be ready to bring them back to consciousness," he recalled.
Dan O'Shea, a former SEAL commander, said the program is designed to push men to the limit and beyond so they are prepared for any challenge.
The medical examiner disagreed about the instructor's actions. They are supposed to splash, make waves and yell at the students but they are advised not to dunk or pull students underwater, the report said.
"It is our opinion that the actions, and inactions, of the instructors and other individuals involved were excessive and directly contributed to the death," the report said.
The Navy has assigned the instructor to administrative duties during its investigation and declined to release any details about him.
Lovelace reportedly was not a strong swimmer. He struggled shortly after he started treading water in fatigues, boots and a dive mask filled with water, according to the report.
Surveillance video appears to show the instructor dunking Lovelace and later pulling him partially up and out of the water and then pushing him back, the report said.
He also slipped underwater several times as the instructor followed him around, splashing him for about five minutes, the report said. Several other instructors also splashed him.
At one point, a fellow trainee tried to help Lovelace keep his head above water.
Multiple people stated that his face was purple and his lips were blue. One individual considered calling a "timeout" to stop the exercise.
Lovelace lost consciousness after he was pulled from the pool. He was taken to a civilian hospital, where he died.