US Troops Keep Dying Far From Combat. Mattis And McCain Think They Have A Solution


More and more U.S. military personnel are dying far from active battlefields — and Secretary of Defense James Mattis is on a mission to figure out why.

Mattis told reporters on Sept. 18 that he and other Pentagon officials are examining the link between military budget levels and the alarming rise of non-combat deaths among the service branches.

“I am not concerned right now that we are rewarding the wrong behaviors, but we are going to find out if that’s the case and we are going to look at that,” he added. “I am not willing to say right now that there is a direct line between sequestration and what has happened. I am willing to say ... we are going to take a very close look at that.”

At least 56 service members have been killed or injured in non-combat incidents since the beginning of June, according to an analysis from Military Times — incidents that include operational mishaps like the back-to-back collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain in the Pacific over the summer; training accidents like the KC-130 crash that left 16 Marines dead in July, the AAV fire that hurt 15 at Camp Pendleton last week, and the range blast that killed one and hurt 7 at Fort Bragg, also last week; and even civilian expos, which have continued to claim the lives of U.S. special operations forces in parachute accidents.

According to Sen. John McCain, the actual number of non-combat deaths and injuries may be closer to 100.

“My friends, more of our men and women in uniform are now being killed in totally avoidable training accidents and routine operations than by our enemies in combat,” McCain said. “Where is the outrage about this? Where is our sense of urgency to deal with this problem?”

This alarming trend in non-combat fatalities appeared to climax in September, as Military Times points out, with two service members were killed and 26 seriously injured in three separate training incidents at military facilities across the country. Most recently, 15 Marines were grievously injured after their amphibious-assault vehicle burst into flames on Sept. 13.

Most of the training mishaps occurred in the Navy and Marine Corps, which have seen dramatic increase in Class A mishaps — non-combat accidents that result in fatalities or a certain damage cost — over the last several years, both tied to an uptick in operational tempo for the two branches. For the Navy, those mishaps are concentrated on surface warships, like the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers doing double-duty in the Pacific to keep an eye on North Korea and China; for the Corps, it’s been mostly aviation operations, essential to deploying Marines quickly downrange. (Army mishaps have remained relatively stable for the last few years, while Air Force mishaps are negligible at best.)

Related: The KC-130 Crash Is Just The Latest Tragedy In The Marine Corps’ Worsening Aviation Mishap Crisis »

Most service branches have attributed the apparent uptick in non-combat deaths to a variety of human errors, from training deficits to equipment maintenance — all of which, according to military leaders, have been exacerbated by 2013 budget sequestration deal. It’s the U.S. government’s “failure over the last eight years to make sure our military is prepared, equipped, trained,” as McCain told CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sept. 17, that defines the DoD’s accident crisis.

Concerns over the relationship between budget cuts and non-combat deaths prevail in the House as well. “We have too few planes that can fly, too few ships that can sail and too few soldiers who can deploy,” Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in the Washington Post on Sept. 7. “A total of 185 service members lost their lives in non-combat accidents over the past three years — more than four times as many as the 44 who were killed in combat.”

While branch officials have moved to hold commanders accountable for non-combat fatalities, as evidenced by the sacking of high-ranking 7th Fleet officers, Thornberry pointed the finger squarely at lawmakers. “It is Congress’s responsibility to provide for the common defense,” he wrote. “Regrettably, over the past six years, funding for our military has been held hostage by members of both parties.”

It seems that Mattis just gave lawmakers like McCain and Thornberry the signal they needed to take action. Mere hours after Mattis put sequestration in the crosshairs, the Senate approved a $700 billion defense policy package, significantly more than both the $603 billion defense budget laid out by President Donald Trump in May and the $640 billion increase kicked around by the House and Senate Armed Service Committees in June. Among its key provisions: a major chunk of cash to fill essential training gaps and maintain existing equipment, spearheaded by McCain.

Related: The Shrinking Military Budget Is Killing Our Readiness »

Despite growing concerns over sequestration’s human toll, Mattis still managed to eke out a silver lining in typically Mattis fashion. The root of the non-combat fatality problem, he said, isn’t just a product of aging airframes and poorly-trained personnel, but a larger function of the armed forces’ “can-do” approach to finding solutions even in the face of scarce resources.

American troops are, in short, too legit to quit.

“I would say, having some association with the U.S. military, we’re almost hard-wired to say ‘can-do,’” Mattis told reporters on Sept. 18. “That is the way we are brought up, routinely, and in combat, that is exactly what you do even at the risk of your troops and equipment and all.

But, he added, “there comes a point in peacetime where you have to make certain you are not always saying we’re going to do more with less.”


Photo via Associated Press
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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