(SAN DIEGO) — The San Diego medical examiner concluded that a Navy SEAL trainee, James Derek Lovelace, 21, drowned during a pool training exercise on May 6 and determined that the death should be considered to be a homicide.
“Although the manner of death could be considered by some as an accident, especially given that the decedent was in a rigorous training program that was meant to simulate an adverse environment,” the report said, “it is our opinion that the actions and inactions of the instructors and other individuals involved were excessive and directly contributed to the death, and the manner of death is best classified as homicide."
Defense officials responded saying that the medical examiner's homicide ruling does not mean a crime has been committed.
“It is important to understand that ‘homicide’ refers to ‘death at the hands of another’ and a homicide is not inherently a crime,” said a statement issued by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which is investigating Lovelace's death. “The NCIS investigation is open and active, and NCIS does not discuss the details of ongoing investigations.”
Lovelace died after appearing to struggle during a pool exercise at the Naval Special Warfare Center, according to the medical examiner’s report.
At the time, he and other and other SEAL trainees were wearing full uniforms, boots and masks and were engaged in a rigorous training program called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS), an intense process for selecting the sailors who will join the elite special operations unit.
The medical examiner determined that Lovelace drowned but noted the role that the stressful exercise and aggressive instructors may have played in the death.
“According to multiple witnesses, the decedent was struggling during the event," said the medical examiner's report. "Multiple people stated that his face was purple and his lips were blue.”
“One individual was even reportedly considering calling a time-out to stop the exercise,” the report read. “According to Naval records, the decedent was not a strong swimmer.”
He was pulled from the pool conscious and soon became unresponsive and later died, despite what the report described as “aggressive resuscitative efforts” after he was taken to the hospital.
The report also found that Lovelace had an underlying condition known as cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart, which could have been a contributing factor.
“It is not known how the anatomic cardiac findings may have affected the decedent,” the report said, “as aberrant coronary arteries have been associated with sudden cardiac death, especially in athletes or other situations of extreme exertion."
In video footage of the pool training exercise, reviewed by investigators, an instructor “is seen to dunk the decedent under the water and then follow him around the pool for approximately 5 minutes," the report read. "He continually splashes the decedent, dunks him at least one additional time and appears to be yelling at him. The decedent is also splashed by other individuals during the event.”
The training exercise was known as “Combat Swimmer Orientation” where “instructors in the water splash, make waves, and yell at the students in order to create an “adverse” environment.” But instructors were reportedly “not to dunk or pull the students under the water,” according to the medical examiner's investigation and report.
A Navy official familiar with the investigation said an initial review of video taken by four cameras at the pool did not seem to indicate that there was any contact between the instructor and Lovelace. However, an enhanced version of one of the videos showed there had been contact; it was that material that was viewed by the medical examiner's office.
Contrary to early press reports, the official said the same video showed that Lovelace was not returned to the pool after having been resuscitated.
Lovelace's death in May was the third involving current or former SEAL recruits who had gone through BUDS training.
In April, Seaman Daniel DelBianco, 23, committed suicide after he did not make it through "hell week," according to the coroner's report. Hell week is the intense week-long climax to BUDS, during which prospective SEALs endure extreme sleep deprivation and tough physical conditions to see whether they can carry out their military training under exhausting conditions. Trainees who complete the BUDS course must then pass an additional six-month course to qualify to become SEALs.
In November, Petty Officer 2nd Class Caplen Weare died in a car accident while driving intoxicated, the coroner's report said. The accident occurred three days after he voluntarily dropped out of the BUDS course, officials said.
The deaths led the Navy to review procedures for keeping track of trainees who do not make it through the grueling process to become SEALs.
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