As a parent or partner of someone in the military, you’re more likely to get a dreaded “call” only to learn that your loved one was killed not in combat, but in an accident. As we first reported in February, too many accidents involve armoured vehicles — and they happen during training sessions.
In May 2019, Marine Corps platoon leader Lieutenant Conor McDowell was on a training mission in a light armored vehicle at Camp Pendleton, California, when it crashed into an unmarked ditch covered in brush.
Lesley Stahl: Describe what happened.
Susan Flanigan: He yelled to his men, “roll over, over, over” and pushed the gunner in the turret next to him under the armor, but he didn’t get down in time and it fell into that ditch, Rolled over and crushed him.
Conor is the only child of Susan Flanigan and Michael McDowell.
Michael McDowell: At first I thought that’s what happens when you train like a fight. But when we went to San Diego to bring him back, I had some free time at the hotel. I googled “rollover” and “military”. I found out a month ago in Pendleton a Marine rolled over to his death. So I googled further afield, “army” etc. Suddenly, I saw a series of fatalities in rollovers of military vehicles: Humvees, light armored vehicles, Bradley fighting vehicles. Then I realized it wasn’t a single event. This is a systemic problem.
Leslie Starr: During training?
Michael McDowell: During training. I can accept people who die in battle. But if you’re training in your own country and dying unnecessarily in a preventable accident, it’s a big problem that must be addressed.
To address the problem, McDowell has been digging, and he says what he found was so serious that it was so often overlooked that the Government Accountability Office released a scathing report: GAO found in Army and Marine Corps With nearly 4,000 such accidents from 2010 to 2019, the Corps killed a total of 123 people, nearly two-thirds of which involved rollovers. Shocking: most of it happens during the day, on ordinary roads, or even in parking lots.
Michael McDowell: It’s a tragedy of low expectations. People are expected to die in training.
Lesley Stahl: You mean, are they expecting this? what are you saying?
Michael McDowell: That’s considered the price of being a soldier or a Marine.
Leslie Starr: In training?
Michael McDowell: Yes.
Lesley Stahl: They expect—
Michael McDowell: “Training is dangerous. These things can happen.”
But they don’t just “happen”. The GAO concluded that there was often “inappropriate oversight.” The drivers are well trained and the vehicle inspection is insufficient. Some accidents involve multiple factors, as was the case with Navy sailor Christopher-Bobby Gneem.
When Bobby’s mum Nancy surprises her one Christmas, he screams of joy.
A year and a half later, in the summer of 2020, he and 15 Marines were near Camp Pendleton training an Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), a giant armored vessel the Marine Corps uses on both land and sea. His stepfather, Peter Vienna, said the Marines were not obligated to field the AAVs used in his son’s exercises.
Peter Vienna: They’re 40 years old and they’re in bad shape. Instead of asking for better-conditioned AAVs, there are many – there are many. They got these, all of them in poor condition.
Peter Ostrovsky: So they sat in the parking lot of Camp Pendleton basking in the sun. They are deteriorating.
Peter Ostrovsky’s son, Jack Ryan, was also involved in the mission.
Peter Ostrovsky: We were talking on the phone a week before the mission. He made the “AAV has been sinking” comment. They called them, and he called it a “floating coffin.”
Leslie Starr: Do you think he’s worried?
Peter Ostrovsky: Oh, of course.
Two AAVs failed and their son’s designated vehicle had an engine leak. However, the mission did not stop.
Lesley Stahl: What motivates the device to have a problem?
Peter Ostrovsky: They try to keep a schedule. [To] on time.
Peter Vienna: Our son’s safety comes second to completing the training mission. This is not a fight. This is not a “must do it now”. This is training. Should have stopped in many places.
But, as seen in a video sent to his father by a Marine, 16 young men crammed into the AAV. It started absorbing water almost immediately: ankle level; calf level; seat level, as one AAV system failed one by one.
Peter Vienna: The communication system is broken. They use the light on their phone in the dark to try and see.
Leslie Starr: Wait, wait, wait. Is the light off?
Peter Vienna: Security lighting that was supposed to work – didn’t.
Lesley Stahl: Are there lifeboats?
Peter Vienna: No. So there should be two safety boats in the water. They got nothing.
This is the AAV on the seafloor in the underwater video we obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Seven people survived. Nine no. It turns out that most people have little safety training on how to escape.
Leslie Starr: It doesn’t make sense.
Peter Vienna: There is a lot of nonsense. They were in the water for 45 minutes and they were still found on the bottom of the sea with all their gear — their gear, their body armor.
Leslie Starr: That—they shouldn’t—that should come off?
Peter Vienna: They don’t know what to do. They all looked at each other, “What does this mean, what should we do?”
Lesley Stahl: You know, the Marines did their own investigation, and the Marines came to the conclusion that, I’m going to use direct citations, it’s “preventable.”
Peter Ostrovsky: The incompetence from the top down, the lack of preparation, the real lack of responsibility to take care of our son – it’s appalling.
Lesley Stahl: Can you sue the military or the commander for what happened?
Peter Vienna: There’s the Feres Doctrine – making that impossible.
Feres Doctrine prohibits anyone from suing the military for anything that happens to a service member on the job, no matter how egregious.
Nancy Vienna: The most important thing to me is that these boys are not protected. I had this vision in my head – the nightmare of an AAV going down. What were his last words?
It was one of the worst training mishaps in Marine Corps history. But accidents keep happening, and GAO regulations that are less serious are probably underestimated. Army combat medic Christian Avila Taveras was training in 2018 when a vehicle broke down and his vehicle had to be towed.
Christian Avila Taveras: It was probably around 1:30 in the morning. It was dark, raining, and muddy. The car we were towing had just slipped and hit us. So we just rolled over. Then I was kicked out of the car, and the car just came right on top of me, pressing me down from my waist.
Lesley Stahl: So this giant monster car Roll on you?
Christian Avila Taveras: Yes. above me.
His left leg had to be amputated above the knee. With severe damage to his right leg, he spent the next two years in rehab to relearn how to walk.
We learned that another rollover occurred during training at the same location as Avila Taveras on the same day.
The Army told us that last year saw fewer vehicle fatalities, mostly due to human error and inexperience; nearly one in five enlisted men joined the military without a driver’s license.
The Pentagon and the Marine Corps declined our interview requests, even though the new defense budget mandates several new safety provisions and the AAV will no longer be used for water-based exercises.
But the military could do more that they didn’t, including a relatively inexpensive upgrade to the vehicle involved in most accidents: the Humvee.
Test footage from safety systems provider IMMI shows what can happen when a Hummer rolls over.
But beware: the driver may have a better chance when the Hummer modifies the IMMI’s restraints and airbags.
One reason Humvees have so many accidents is volume: the Army alone uses more than 100,000 of them. Another reason is engineering: their high center of gravity makes them easy to flip.
Since the Humvee was an easy target for improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military added extra armor to make it more unstable.
Small military contractor Ricardo Defense invited us to do a demo to demonstrate how unstable these vehicles are when cornering.
We were going under 30 mph. There are two yellow bars in there to prevent us from actually tipping over.
Most Hummers don’t have anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control to prevent rollovers. But eight years ago, Ricardo developed them for the Hummer. Ricardo’s president is Chet Gryczan.
Chet Gryczan: Let’s do the same thing with the system on, shall we?
When the system is on: all wheels are firmly on the ground.
The system works well and is now mandatory in all new systems Hummer. But what about already used Hummers? Well, Ricardo came up with a safety kit that could be installed on about 54,000 older Humvees for about $16,000 per vehicle.
You can make 10 or more older cars safer for the price of a new car. However, the Department of Defense requested substantial funding for new Humvees, but only a fraction of what was required to retrofit older Humvees.
Chet Gryczan: If the budget is approved today, we will have enough money to produce about 545 cars.
Lesley Stahl: 545 out of 54,000? That’s it?
Chet Gryczan: That’s it, yeah. So that’s about 1% of the fleet. At this rate, it would take 100 years for the fleet to adapt.
Lesley Stahl: A recent letter to the Pentagon from several members of Congress supports your toolkit. They calculated that the cost difference between installing the kit and building the new car was about $13 billion. It sounds simple.
Chet Grizzan: Yes. Why don’t you do this?
Congressman and the Pentagon’s preference for new upgrades “is often based on feeding defense contractors,” Congressman John Garamendi, chairman of the Armed Forces Readiness Subcommittee, told CNN.
Lesley Stahl: Did you do anything to say “nobody should sit on a Humvee without antilock brakes”?
Michael McDowell: We’ve tried and I’ve lobbied. We want to improve the safety of training. Because people die unnecessarily in preventable accidents. It doesn’t cost that much. But it has to be done. That’s the American people putting pressure on their members of Congress.
After we first aired this report, Congress increased the Army’s funding from $10 million to more than $190 million to install safety modification kits, enabling roughly 11,000 Humvees to be upgraded, and plans to begin this summer .
Produced by Shachar Bar-On. Associate Producer Jinsol Jung. Broadcast Assistant, Rain Woodson. Edited by Matthew Lev.