- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

Memorial Day is always an important event for septuagenarian Bill Gruber of Naples, Fla., a Korean War veteran whose father fought in the trenches during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I.
But Mr. Gruber says Memorial Day will be especially "emotional" for him this year.
He's mourning the loss of his son, Brooks, 34, a Marine Corps major who perished last month along with 18 other Marines in the fiery crash of the MV-22 Osprey, an experimental aircraft, during a nighttime training exercise in Arizona.
Mr. Gruber doesn't know how much attention will be focused this Memorial Day on soldiers like his son who lost their lives in military training accidents. Traditionally, Memorial Day ceremonies spotlight those who died in battle. And the public tends to associate Memorial Day with war dead.
But in today's military, fatal accidents far outstrip the number of combat-related deaths.
For example, the Air Force has lost 1,072 persons in training and operational missions in the past decade, compared with 25 combat deaths. The wide gap between non-hostile and hostile deaths is a trend seen in all branches of the military.
Marine Corps figures are especially dramatic. Between 1980 and early 1999, there were 274 hostile deaths worldwide. All but 40 of those deaths occurred in 1983, when terrorist bombers killed 234 Marines serving as peacekeepers in Lebanon.
During the same nearly 20-year period, accidents including automobile crashes were blamed for 2,612 Marine deaths; illnesses, for 369 deaths; homicides, for 255 deaths; and suicides, for 516 deaths. Officials were unable to determine the cause of 107 other Marine deaths.
Those familiar with military operations say Americans on Memorial Day should remember not only the war dead but all who died in military service. "When people die in training and operations missions, these people have given their lives in defense of their country. Their deaths are no less a loss" than those of military personnel killed in combat, said Army Lt. Col. Steve Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman.
"These guys are heroes," he said of those who die in peacetime training exercises and operations.
Mr. Gruber finds it ironic that his son, Brooks, the Osprey's co-pilot, managed to survive the horrors of warfare in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia before dying in training on U.S. soil.
"He was a rugged kid. He lived on the edge, so to speak," Mr. Gruber said of his son, who left behind a wife, Connie, and a 9-month-old daughter, Brook. Young Gruber was not at the controls of the Osprey, an aircraft that's part turboprop and part helicopter, when it crashed as it sought to land at an airport in Marana, Ariz.
Marine officials have ruled out mechanical failure as a cause of the crash. They said the Osprey was descending too rapidly, apparently causing a rotor to stall and putting the plane into a fatal nosedive.
Capt. Landon Hutchens, a Marine Corps spokesman, said, "The Osprey aircraft is seven times more crashworthy than the helicopter it's replacing."
Even Mr. Gruber believes the Osprey is safe. "I continue to be positive about the Marine Corps' use of the Osprey unless they find something beyond what they've found up till now," he said in a recent telephone interview.
As for Memorial Day commemorations, he said: "I certainly support any activities related to Memorial Day. But everyone needs to respect and appreciate people in the military, whether they are in combat or not."
Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis says those who die in military training "paid an ultimate sacrifice" but they are treated as "second-class citizens in the military."
Others, such as Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Department, disagree. Mr. Budahn points out that family members of peacetime soldiers who die on active duty receive the same death and survivors' benefits and opportunities for educational benefits and home loans as the kin of those who die during a war.
But Mr. Maginnis, senior director for national security and foreign policy for the Family Research Council, says the public "has no idea of the day-to-day risks that are involved in military life and training."
Gunnery Sgt. Phil Mehringer, a spokesman for the Marine Corps, said: "There is definitely a degree of hazardous duty in the training environment. There's an old saying, 'You train as you would fight,' " he said in an interview.
"To make training as realistic as possible, there are hazardous repercussions… . Marines train … to ensure their fighting capability is skilled and up to par, so they are ready, if they are called," he said.
"Before a Marine expeditionary force is deployed, it goes through a six-month intensive special operations predeployment phase," said Capt. Hutchens, a former assistant operations officer for the 22nd Marines Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capability). He's served on missions in Sierra Leone, the Congo and Albania.
"We've been very successful in the past 15 years with keeping our combat casualties down… . More than anything else, realistic training has given us success in combat," Capt. Hutchens said.
Col. Campbell agrees. "We learn from mistakes. When people are lost in training, we learn from their deaths, just as we learn from combat deaths. We always try to learn from the things that happen," he said.
At the same time, he stresses that Defense Secretary William S. Cohen is committed to a "zero loss of life in accidents."
"And we continue to put measures in place to reduce that number to zero," Col. Campbell said.
Defense Department data indicate progress. In fiscal 1980, 1,577 U.S. military personnel died in accidents. In fiscal 1998, the number was down to 420.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones says he "really agonizes over training deaths." And in recent months, there have been several training accidents involving multiple deaths. In addition to the Osprey crash, a twin-rotor CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter plunged into the ocean off San Diego in December, killing six Marines and a Navy corpsman.
"It is not acceptable to have young men and women in the military die in training… . We have to work harder to get our arms around how to train forces in the safest possible way," Gen. Jones said in a recent interview.
A Marine Corps captain was court-martialed in April for forcing a 21-year-old reservist at Camp LeJeune, N.C., to make an eight-mile conditioning hike in 80-degree heat last July. The reservist died afterward.
Gen. Jones says situations like that should not happen. The Marines require "modified training if the temperature and humidity reach certain levels." Those who elect to "go outside of the safe envelope" can expect to face consequences, he said.
But the commandant acknowledged it's often a struggle to get a "balance between how realistic you train and what part of the envelope you push."
"The harder you push the envelope, the more risk you buy," Gen. Jones said.
Hershel W. Gober, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, who trained both in the Army and Marines, has seen men die in training. He recalls the horror of a Cold War training incident in Germany in 1963. "We were crossing the Rhine River in armored personnel carriers, and one of the carriers went under. The bilge pump quit working, and the engine was killed. We lost three of our soldiers. It was a devastating experience," he said.
"My training probably kept me alive," said Mr. Gober, a former Army major who served in Vietnam. He recalled a colleague a lieutenant colonel, who served with him in Southeast Asia. That man died there not in combat but in a training accident involving mortar fire.
"There is training with live munitions, which is very dangerous," said Mr. Maginnis. Danger is always present, "when you train hard," he said.
"Even with the best precautions, we occasionally have operational mishaps," Capt. Hutchens said, citing factors such as the "sheer number of hours we fly, the live fire, and our seaborne operations."
"The bottom line is that when you put on a uniform and you are given orders, you can be put in harm's way," said Mr. Gober.
Many lives can be lost in a single accident. Nineteen Marines were killed in the Osprey crash, three times more than died in all Marine Corps aviation accidents during fiscal 1999.
Col. Dave Williamson, chief of Air Force Safety Issues at the Pentagon, noted that 14 lives were lost when two helicopters collided in midair at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas in September 1998. That was definitely one of the worst Air Force training accidents in recent years, he said.
The Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines combine training and operations fatalities. But most of the fatal crashes are training missions, said Maj. Chet Curtis, Air Force spokesman.
"We train like we fight," he said.
Col. Williamson argues that this does not mean the training is dangerous "because we work very hard at managing any risk involved."
"We have many, many controls in place and imbedded in our daily operations that mitigate and reduce the risks of activities that to the ordinary person might appear dangerous. The USAF relies on a three-pronged safety philosophy consisting of strong leadership, personal accountability and risk management," the colonel said.
Gen. Jones, the Marine commandant, concedes that the Marines have a significantly higher flight mishap rate than the other services. But unlike the other branches, he said, "We fly all kinds of aircraft. We come from the sea and land and take off from ships at night. We're very intensely oriented toward training, and we sometimes pay a little higher price."
If the average American does not comprehend the risks involved in military training, the commander in chief obviously does.
President Clinton frequently called attention to the hazards associated with "routine" military training throughout 1999 as he defended sending Americans to Kosovo as peacekeepers.
"The mission I have asked our armed forces to carry out with our NATO allies is a dangerous one, as I have repeatedly said. Danger is something the brave men and women of our country's armed forces understand, because you live with it every day, even in routine training exercises," he said in March.
In speeches throughout the spring and summer of last year including his 1999 Memorial Day address Mr. Clinton repeatedly sought to equate the hazards involved in the Kosovo mission with those of military training.
"There are risks every time our young people get up and fly jet airplanes at very high speeds. Most of us could not begin to do that. Most of us don't even have the reflexes or the eyesight or the hearing, never mind the skills to do it," the president said.
"We lose a substantial number of our men and women in uniform every single year in training operations. It is inherently dangerous work," he said.
A four-day National Military Survivors Seminar, which ends today at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va., publicly recognizes military personnel killed in training as well as those who died from all other causes, including personal motor vehicle accidents, homicides, suicides and heart attacks.
"Our program really focuses on honoring the lives of those [in the military] who died, regardless of the cause of death. We're honoring the fact that these people stepped forward to sacrifice for their country," said Bonnie Carroll, board member and spokesman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which sponsored the seminar.
Mrs. Carroll said TAPS "reaches out to those affected by deaths in the military," offering them "immediate coping with their tragic loss." Support comes from professional counselors and those who have experienced losses of loved ones in the military.
She recalls that last year Jean Gibbs, widow of an Army aviator who died when an Apache helicopter crashed during nighttime training near Kosovo, attended the survivors' seminar. Mrs. Gibbs attended the conference just days after her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 3 David A. Gibbs, 38, of Ohio, was buried.
Chief Warrant Officer Gibbs and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin L. Reichert, 28, of Wisconsin, who died in the same crash, were the only U.S. military fatalities in the 1999 NATO air war to drive Serbian troops out of Kosovo.

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