Navy SEAL Dies in Parachute Mishap, 4th Training Death in 14 Months

U.S. Navy SEALs move toward a MH-60S Seahawk helicopter.
U.S. Navy SEALs move toward a MH-60S Seahawk helicopter to conduct a military free fall training event on Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, Romania, Sept. 15, 2011. (U.SA. Navy photo by Sgt. Derek Kuhn)

A Navy SEAL died Sunday after a parachuting incident in Arizona, marking the fourth death related to the elite program in just over a year.

Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael T. Ernst died following a "military freefall training accident" on Feb. 19 in Marana, Arizona, and the death is under investigation, Lt. Cmdr. Kara Handley, a Navy spokeswoman, told in an email late Wednesday evening.

Two other SEALs were recently killed in a helicopter landing and a fast-roping exercise. And a sailor who was a candidate in the program's entrance training died last year, raising questions about medical care.

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Ernst had been in the Navy since 2009 and had been assigned to what the SEALs say is an East Coast special warfare unit for the majority of his service, records provided by the Navy show. Navy Special Warfare typically doesn't provide specific unit assignments of individual sailors.

Rear Adm. Keith Davids, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, called Ernst "an exceptional teammate ... who applied his talents and skills towards some of our nation's hardest challenges, while selflessly mentoring his teammates."

"Mike and his family will always be part of the NSW family, and he will never be forgotten," Davids added in his statement.

Handley said Ernst was pronounced dead at Banner University Medical Center in nearby Tucson at 2:07 p.m. local time Sunday.

The Navy is investigating the cause of the incident, and "it would be inappropriate to comment further on the ongoing investigation until complete," Handley said.

In May 2022, Electronics Technician 1st Class Ryan DeKorte, who was also assigned to an East Coast naval special warfare unit, died following a helicopter landing incident at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story just outside of Norfolk, Virginia.

A few months earlier, in February 2022, Seaman Kyle Mullen died of pneumonia just after passing the initial phase of SEAL training. His death set off a series of investigations and articles that revealed the training pipeline into the elite unit failed to provide enough medical care to recruits and fostered a culture where asking for help is discouraged.

The Navy also confirmed that it's looking into reports after Mullen's death that the program is rife with performance-enhancing drug use, cheating and abuse.

Cmdr. Brian Bourgeois, the commanding officer of SEAL Team 8, was injured and subsequently died in December 2021 after a fast-rope training evolution in Norfolk.

Typically, fast-roping involves personnel sliding down a thick rope from a hovering helicopter.

The Navy has said that all of the training deaths were under investigation around the time they occurred but, to date, none of those reports has been released.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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