These are some pretty serious claims. Should the Navy abolish this particular training exercise?
A week after a Navy SEAL trainee died following a swimming drill in California, accounts are emerging that challenge the Navy’s narrative of what happened and paint a darker picture, alleging that the death may have been the result of an instructor going too far.
Seaman James Derek Lovelace, 21, died May 6 during what a Navy spokesman described as a swimming exercise in the first week of SEAL training. A safety observer noticed Lovelace “having a hard time,” the spokesman said, and instructors guided him to the edge of the pool and tried to revive him. He never regained consciousness.
A Navy SEAL official speaking to a Pilot reporter this week emphasized that the drill — known as “drown proofing” — wasn’t particularly rigorous. Although former SEALs say all students are subjected to extensive physical examinations before being admitted into the program, the official speculated that Lovelace might have had an underlying health problem.
But in the days since the Navy put out its account, more than a half-dozen people with a connection to the SEALs training have come forward to NBC News and The Virginian-Pilot with a far different story. All of them have demanded anonymity, saying they must protect the identities of Navy personnel who fear retaliation and in some cases still want to become SEALs.
According to the sources who’ve spoken to NBC — none of whom are eyewitnesses, but who include two family members of SEAL students who were present during the incident and a former SEAL who’s coaching a student through the course — Lovelace had been held underwater before passing out.
A Navy spokesman did not immediately respond to questions for this story. The preliminary findings of an autopsy by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office indicate Lovelace drowned, though the investigation of cause of death is ongoing. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating, as is the case after any training death.
“NCIS is conducting a comprehensive investigation to determine the circumstances and chain of events in the death of Seaman Lovelace,” agency spokesman Ed Buice said in an email. “Every individual who may have information pertinent to this investigation will be interviewed and every available bit of evidence will be analyzed.”
Unlike what was described by the Navy, the sources say the drill involved physical harassment of trainees by instructors in the water, intended to test their ability to stay afloat under stress. It wasn’t a “drown proofing” drill, according to three of the sources, but rather a more intense exercise known as “combat tread.” During “combat tread,” according to former SEALs, students swim in camouflage uniforms while instructors grab at them in the water.
“[Lovelace] was hands on with the instructor,” one source said. “He passed out first and was sent back in. The instructor kept physically and verbally harassing him.”