As military rollover deaths increase, families push for change
Families of servicemembers killed in vehicle accidents band together to change Pentagon policies
Spc. Marquise Gabriel Elliot survived an eight-month tour in Afghanistan in 2017 and 2018, collecting several awards for his Army service, including the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal. The 25-year-old North Carolina native returned to the United States and was stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, an assignment that thrilled the avid hiker.
Elliot dreamed of one day opening a barbershop with his father, possibly even in Alaska. But in June 2019, just over a year after returning from Afghanistan, Elliot was killed when his Humvee rolled over during an exercise at the Yukon Training Area. Another passenger in the vehicle suffered minor injuries.
Elliot’s death isn’t unique, or even unusual. At least two other soldiers died in rollovers during stateside training in the weeks before Elliot’s death.
In 2019 alone, at least 15 servicemembers died in military vehicle accidents. So far this year, at least 10 have been killed in vehicle-related training accidents. In the past 14 years, nearly four times as many servicemembers have died in training accidents as in combat, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Many of these accidents involve the kind of rollover that killed Elliot, accidents the families of the deceased say are preventable. These families are now banding together to rewrite military policies, but they argue the Defense Department has moved slowly to institute change, and the issue is only starting to percolate and the response is not yet consistent on Capitol Hill.
[House prefers new vehicles over quick fix to military rollovers]
The Pentagon requested $93.8 million in its $740 billion fiscal 2021 budget to address “rollover and loss of control incidents resulting in fatalities and serious injury,” according to budget documents. That money would pay to outfit more than 5,000 old Humvees with safety kits, but the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee slashed that funding in its defense spending bill.
It’s unclear whether Senate appropriators will work to restore that funding when they take up their version of the spending measure. But even with that money, advocates for change argue that the military needs to make broader, institutional changes to its training, culture and requirements.
Elliot’s sister, Rebecca Purvis, said she felt the Army did not do enough to prevent Elliot’s death and did not handle the situation properly after the accident. Purvis, a former active-duty soldier who currently serves in the Army Reserve, said the service did not adequately communicate the regulations and entitlements that follow the death of a servicemember and officials did not release documents requested by the family pertaining to Elliot's death.
“The Army didn’t do right by my family or the families of others who passed away. It’s an epidemic that we’re seeing. It happens way too often,” she said.
The Army did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
Purvis and her husband went to Capitol Hill a month after Elliot’s death, hoping to persuade lawmakers to pressure the military to prevent these types of accidents. They met with staff for Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
“But they didn’t take it seriously,” Purvis said. “I got the impression they were just entertaining a grieving family member.”
Sarah Schwirian, Scott’s spokeswoman, confirmed the meeting with the family.
“Any military death is tragic, and Senator Scott is always looking for ways to help our service members,” she said in a written statement.
Purvis then turned to social media, where she found families calling for the same changes she was pushing.
One such advocate was Kimberly Weaver, the mother of Army Spc. Nicholas Panipinto, 20, who was killed in November when the combat vehicle he was driving flipped and rolled over during a road test at South Korea’s Camp Humphreys, the U.S. military’s largest overseas base.
The emergency response to Panipinto’s accident was plagued by a series of vehicle and equipment problems and other mishaps that delayed lifesaving treatment for the Florida native. In the end, it took nearly two hours to transport Panipinto to an off-base trauma center, where he ultimately died.
Weaver was irate.
“No one should die needlessly. This is crazy,” Weaver said. “The number of training accidents is completely unnecessary. But if we just take our folded flag and sit in a corner and cry, nothing will change.”
Weaver got in touch with her congressman, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla. Buchanan later introduced an amendment to the House version of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill requiring the military to study how to better respond to emergencies like Panipinto’s.
In August, Buchanan called on the House Armed Services Committee to hold a public hearing on military training accidents after the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor during a July amphibious assault vehicle training accident in the Pacific Ocean just off the California coast.
“The loss of a single American soldier is tragic and the continued loss of service members in preventable training accidents is completely unacceptable,” Buchanan wrote in a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the committee.
‘Absence of a culture of safety’
Both Weaver and Purvis say the involvement of lawmakers, and the coordination of families of servicemembers, can be traced at least in part to the McDowell family.
Michael and Susan McDowell are the parents of Lt. Conor McDowell, who was killed in May 2019 when, during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton in California, his light armored vehicle rolled off a cliff into a crevice that had been hidden by tall weeds. He died instantly.
“He knew that training could be very dangerous, and he also knew that his unit had had several near-fatal rollovers in the previous months. As he wrote in a private journal about a rollover that involved a LAV with seven Marines on board: ‘It’s a miracle no one was killed. ... This is a reminder that at any moment, through careless action, even in training, Marines can die,’” the McDowells wrote in a May 23 editorial in the Los Angeles Times.
Since Conor’s death, the McDowells have been increasingly vocal in their campaign to prevent future military vehicle accidents. They have lobbied members of Congress, including both Democratic senators from their home state of Maryland, Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin.
According to the McDowells, though, perhaps the most important lawmaker they have worked with is Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.
“Conor’s death was, in my view, a result of an absence of a culture of safety across all branches of the military,” Garamendi told CQ Roll Call.
“There is a steady drumbeat of accidents involving military vehicles, and we have to ask: Are these servicemembers trained to operate these vehicles? Are they properly restrained within the vehicles?” Garamendi said.
Garamendi pushed for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, into the recent spike in Army and Marine Corps rollover deaths.
Cary Russell, a director in the GAO’s defense capabilities and management team, said the ongoing investigation is focused on three core areas: military vehicle driver training, the safety of the vehicles themselves and the safety of the training areas where combat vehicles are being operated.
The results of the investigation, which began in October 2019, will be sent to Congress next year. But the families of those soldiers and Marines who died point to inadequate training as perhaps the most significant problem.
A lack of driver training has been cited repeatedly by the families of fallen servicemembers.
“Nicholas wasn’t licensed or trained to be driving that vehicle,” Weaver said. “But he did what he was told. That’s what you do in the military.”
In a letter sent to House Armed Services Committee leaders, Buchanan wrote that he read a sworn statement from the master driver of Panipinto’s unit, responsible for training troops on vehicles and administering licenses, that said the training program was “nonexistent.”
Purvis echoed the sentiment.
“I was told when I had just started in the Army to go and drive a Humvee on base at Fort Bragg. I had zero training and had to figure it out on the spot,” she said. “And as a junior soldier, you don’t feel confident enough to speak up for yourself because you don’t want to get chewed out or have your life made a living hell just because you said something.”
Kurt Delia, president of Delia Tactical, a company that instructs the military and law enforcement on the safe operation of heavily armored combat vehicles, says driver training is critical in preventing rollovers.
“If you have someone behind the wheel without the proper training, you can easily roll an armored vehicle,” he said. “They don’t know how to counter-steer or drive at night or take corners at speed.”
Additionally, Delia said, untrained drivers often forgo safety precautions like wearing seat belts or properly securing items, like boxes of ammunition, in the back of the vehicle.
“All of that shit turns into missiles when the truck rolls,” he said.
State of the fleet
The aging fleet of military vehicles is another issue that can put lives at risk.
There are currently more than 5,000 older Humvees, also called legacy vehicles, in use on U.S. military bases. The military plans to continue operating them until the 2040s.
These Humvees typically are decades old and lack modern safety technology like anti-lock braking and electronic stability control systems, which are standard on all modern civilian vehicles.
On the defense authorization bill, the annual Pentagon policy measure, Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., touted the bill’s support for safety modifications aimed at preventing rollovers on tactical vehicles. Specifically, the bill authorizes the money the Army requested (and House appropriators denied) for retrofit kits for the more than 5,000 older Humvees. Senate appropriators often look to the chamber’s authorization measure when writing their bill.
“We’ll continue to prioritize this — our service members are willing to lay it all on the line, and we need to minimize risk during training,” Inhofe said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
When asked what the Marine Corps is doing to prevent training deaths, Capt. Casey Littesy, a spokeswoman for the service, said the Marine Corps regularly reviews ways to improve the safety of operations across the service.
“We continue to provide guidance and resources on proven mishap prevention measures by educating Marines on time-critical risk management skills, reinforcing adherence to published safety standards and publishing lessons learned through our Safety Division,” Littesy said.
But some remain skeptical that adherence to published safety standards will make a difference without broader, institutional changes.
“I know there are safety regulations to prevent this, but the sad thing is, a lot of things get pushed to the wayside to meet mission requirements,” Purvis said. “If they don’t meet the requirements they’re in trouble — they get stripped of rank, or of pay.”
“If things were done the right way, this wouldn’t be an issue,” she added.