Special Operations Forces Face A Dangerous Rise In Parachuting Deaths

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The military’s elite special operations forces are facing a troubling and deadly rise in the number of parachute deaths that occur during training. According to Military Times, which broke the story, 21 special operations forces have died while performing high-risk parachute training since 2004.


The findings are based on information from the military’s investigations into the deaths, released to Military Times under the freedom of information act.

On March 18, 2015, Navy SEAL Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Kortz was killed while performing a high-altitude, high-opening jump. The resulting Navy investigation determined that Kortz was ordered to perform the jump before he was ready, and that his death was “preventable,” reports Military Times.

Related: The Military Has A Flight-Readiness Problem That’s Not Going Away »

Following Kortz’ death, Adm. Brian Losey, then-commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, ordered a review of his command's air operations. According to Military Times, Kortz’ death was not an isolated incident. He was one of 11 special operators killed between 2011 and 2016, which marks a 60% rise over the past five years, based on records obtained by Military Times.

Equally troubling is that there appears to be no common link between the incidents. Since 2013, the Navy SEALs have lost four operations in parachute accidents. The Marines lost three since 2009 and the Army lost one Green Beret and one Ranger in the same time period. Neither was there a single factor attributed to the jump deaths, Military Times notes. Of the 11 SOCOM parachute deaths that occurred since 2011, eight involved free falls with heavy combat gear. This includes high-altitude, high-open jumps as well as the most dangerous jump, high-altitude, low-open jumps. Three of the 11 jump deaths involved static-line jumps, where the parachute opens immediately after leaving the aircraft.

The rise in training deaths alarmed senior leaders at U.S. Special Operations Command and in September 2015, two weeks after the investigation into Kortz’ death was completed, SOCOM’s commander at the time, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, halted all free-fall jumps for three months.

What followed was a SOCOM-wide review of all free-fall programs, with a focus on procedures, doctrine, and equipment. All jumpmasters were retrained and sent back to their units to re-qualify all jumpers and the Military Freefall Working Group was established to review lessons learned from these incidents.

According to Military Times’ review of the accident investigations involving special operations personnel, training shortfalls, a lapse in jump qualifications, and a number of accidents were at least partially attributed to overconfidence on the part of the jumpers or trainers.

“To that end, the spike in deaths has raised the question of whether there is a cultural problem inside some parts of Special Operations Command, and whether its fraternity of elite warriors fostered a complacency that undermined safety,” write Military Times’ David Larter and Meghann Myers.

However, the SOCOM-wide review in 2015 does appear to have had a positive impact, with one jump death reported in 2016, notes Military Times.

(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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