Marine Corps major relieved of command after drowning investigation

By TONY PERRY | Los Angeles Times | Published: May 29, 2014

SAN DIEGO — A Marine major in charge of a swimming training program at Camp Pendleton has been relieved of his command after an investigation into the drowning of a private concluded that the major had allowed unsafe conditions.

A Marine Corps investigation said that Maj. Adam Burch had placed too high a value on having each Marine finish the training while he was commanding officer of the Reconnaissance Training Co. and not enough significance on ensuring their safety.

Pfc. Joshua Islam, 18, of Union City, N.C., drowned Jan. 13 after refusing to quit during the training.

“(Islam) continuously said, ‘I can’t, I can’t,’ but the swimming instructors answered back, ‘Do you quit?’” the Marine Corps Times reported. The newspaper received a copy of the investigation report under the Freedom of Information Act.

Islam refused to quit and instead re-entered the pool to continue attempting to meet the standards, according to the report. Exhausted, he came to the side of the pool and collapsed, the report said.

Islam’s father, James Islam, told the newspaper that his son was determined to succeed in everything he did.

“He loved the idea of being challenged to his physical and mental limits,” he said. “In so many ways, that makes him perfect for a recon Marine. In training, if somebody didn’t work out till they puked, I would say he almost had a contempt for them. He just had a passion for it.”

Included in the investigation report was a memo by Col. Stefan Bien, commander of the School of Infantry West at Camp Pendleton.

“It is my opinion the instructors … were so focused on technical instruction of (Islam) and wanting him to succeed … they were unable to recognize and were unable to assimilate due to lack of knowledge, the signs of instinctive drowning response,” he wrote.

Burch was relieved of command by Brig. Gen. John Simmons, commanding general of the Training Command, based at Quantico, Va.

Simmons had a “loss of trust and confidence in his (Burch’s) ability to lead Marines,” a Marine spokesman said.

As a result of the drowning and investigation, several changes have been made in the swimming program, the spokesman said.

Specific rules are being established to determine when training should be halted for safety reasons. Periodic “safety stand-downs” will be held. And all commanding officers and senior non-commissioned officers will be required to take a safety course.

Instructors will be trained on how to distinguish between “aquatic distress” and “instinctive drowning response,” the spokesman said.

“The death of Pvt. 1st Class Islam was a tragedy for his family and for the Marine Corps,” Simmons said.

“We have a responsibility to all Marines and their families to learn from this incident so that Marines can, as safely as possible, conduct the hard, realistic training that enables them to be successful in all their missions.”

Marines with 9th Communication Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force swim across the 43 Area Training Tank during swim qualification at Camp Pendleton, Calif., April 4, 2013. The Marines are first tested on their ability to swim 25 meters before moving on to other challenges.


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