From 2011 to 2016, 11 special operators across the services died in parachute training accidents, which has baffled military leadership at Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
The number of deaths during that time period constituted a 60 percent increase, compared to the five-year period leading up to 2011, Military Times reports.
While serving as head of SOCOM, Army Gen. Joseph Votel ordered an intervention and stopped all free-fall jumps for a period of three months in September 2015. The order also outlined new safety measures desperately needed and called for a full review of programs.
SOCOM now thinks problems present in training, doctrine or equipment have been adequately addressed, but still, the driving cause behind the upswing in deaths is unclear; some have pointed to overconfidence from trainers and jumpers as being partially responsible.
“Being ‘special’ shouldn’t be an excuse to cut corners or accept needless risk in either training or operations,” a retired senior special operations officer told Military Times. “When the mission requires, you assess risk, carefully mitigate it and drive on. … That’s different than being improperly trained or careless. Attention to detail and adherence to safe operating procedures is even more fundamental to elite force operations than conventional units.”
Other potential causes discussed by SOCOM officials include the fact that the number of special operators has exploded since 9/11 and hence the number of jumps has increased, leading to a higher probability of more accidents.
As just one example, Navy SEAL Jason Kortz died in March 2015, due to errors in training and also Kortz’s own inexperience. While he was jumping with combat gear, his parachute somehow became tangled and he came out of the aircraft facing up, rather than down. He dropped to his death after his reserve parachute also got tangled.
Some others who spoke to Military Times emphasized that it’s impossible to fully remove the risk associated with jumping, especially because it’s inherently more fraught with danger than civilian skydiving.
“It’s not like a civilian skydive: You are strapping 100 pounds of crap to you and jumping out at 20,000 feet with oxygen,” an enlisted special operator told Military Times. “There are all sorts of things that could happen to you. Your rucksack can become unclipped and destabilize you, your oxygen mask can get ripped off — we had one guy who that happened to, who passed out until he descended to a point where there was enough oxygen in the air for him to breathe. It’s no joke.”
But regardless of confusion about the precise causes behind the deaths, Votel’s review seems to have worked quite well. SOCOM only reported one parachute jump fatality in 2016.