When Joshua Braica informed his family that he wanted to join the Marines after high school, his mother, Alexandrina, discouraged it. She was concerned about the risks a military life would bring.
So she urged Joshua to wait, and when he brought it up again, she asked him to pray, thinking he would conclude it wasn’t for him.
“He came back and he said, ‘I prayed and I think I have a calling. I want to honor my country,’ ” she said.
In early April, Joshua, by then a 29-year-old Marine special operator whose wife had recently given birth to the couple’s first child, died in an unexplained accident at Camp Pendleton, Calif., one of several military training fatalities that have focused attention on the dangers troops face far from the battlefield.
According to official statistics, training fatalities outnumbered combat deaths four to one in recent years as the pace of overseas counterterrorism operations has slowed. While Pentagon officials say training deaths are down overall, they acknowledge that at least 15 service members have been killed in military vehicle accidents this year, an increase from the previous year.
For Alexandrina Braica, a struggle to obtain clear information about what caused Joshua’s death has compounded her grief as she awaits an official investigation.
“I keep thinking, is anyone taking seriously what happened to my son?” Braica asked. “Did anyone say, ‘OK, we had a fatality, let’s ensure this doesn’t happen again?’ ”
Now the families of those killed are pushing the Pentagon to more closely examine the incidents and prioritize improving training standards to prevent future deaths. Lawmakers have also urged senior military leaders to investigate and petitioned a government watchdog to conduct an independent analysis.
Pentagon officials say they have put in place technical solutions intended to improve training safety, including the installation of ground collision avoidance systems they say have prevented at least seven incidents related to F-16 aircraft.
To address vehicle accidents, the Army has mandated anti-lock brakes and an electronic stability system associated with reduced rollover risk for new and recapitalized Humvees. The systems, which became mandatory for new U.S. cars in 2011, have been installed in only about 3,200 of the Army’s fleet of more than 100,000 Humvees.
For families of service members like Marine 1st Lt. H. Conor McDowell, such changes would come too late.
On the morning of May 9, McDowell, 24, was leading a group of Marines advancing light armored vehicles (LAVs) slowly across a California training range largely obscured by tall grass and weeds.
Despite the Marines’ caution, the vehicle in which McDowell was traveling suddenly tipped forward into a deep ravine. From the LAV’s turret, McDowell was able to push his gunner down to safety. But McDowell was killed instantly when the vehicle landed upside down, his father, Michael McDowell, said.
Michael McDowell believes that the Marines failed to properly survey the range before sending vehicles out that day. Families of those killed are also questioning the maintenance of the vehicles, many of which had undergone years of heavy use overseas, and whether pre-exercise training was adequate.
Six months before he was killed, McDowell wrote in his journal about an earlier LAV rollover: “This isn’t the end of the world but we got really lucky. … This is a reminder that at any moment, through careless action, even in training, Marines can die.”
Michael McDowell said the nature of his son’s death made it harder to accept his loss.
“If he had died in a firefight, I would have been proud, but I would have said that is what he signed up for,” he said. “I am still very proud of Conor, but he didn’t sign up to die in a preventable accident.”