Marine officials have relieved the commanding officer of the Corps’ Reconnaissance Training Company and ordered an overhaul of training after a private first class drowned during a preliminary recon swim test aboard Camp Pendleton, California, earlier this year.
Pfc. Joshua Islam, 18, of Union County, North Carolina, died Jan. 13 after inhaling a significant amount of water during the 30-minute water-treading portion of the basic reconnaissance swim screener, which came on his first day with the Marines Awaiting Reconnaissance Training Platoon at Pendleton’s School of Infantry–West. Following an investigation into the incident, Maj. Adam W. Burch was relieved of his command May 15 for allowing a number of unsafe conditions that contributed to Islam’s death.
A nearly 400-page command investigation, released to Marine Corps Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, found that the swim screener, held at the pool in the Las Pulgas area of the base, had ample supervision from swim instructors and standby medical personnel who interacted with Islam during the evaluation, but they failed to recognize his level of distress. The probe also found that the training staff did not adequately communicate with Islam and other Marines in the platoon that this was a placement swim; failing to complete it would not have forced them out of the program.
The swim screener included five events, which are completed in the full camouflage utilities unform, without boots: a 25-meter underwater swim, 500-meter swim, rifle retrieval from 15 feet underwater, rifle tow for 25 meters, and the water tread. During the 30-minute tread water exercise, the last event of the swim screener, it was clear early on that Islam was struggling, the investigation found. During the first five to 10 minutes, participants saw him showing signs of panic, with rapid arm movements and coughing.
“[Islam] continuously said, ‘I can’t, I can’t,’ and the instructors asked back, ‘do you quit?’” the investigation recounted. “[His] response every time was, ‘I don’t quit.’”
Islam’s father, James Islam, told Marine Corps Times his son was unrelenting 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.”
Ten minutes into treading water, Islam was ordered out of the pool to rest and check in with the corpsman who was observing the event. The corpsman, whose named was not released, checked his oxygen levels and found they averaged 96 percent, an acceptable reading. After three or four minutes, Islam asked to get back into the pool and finish his training, and the instructors cleared him to return.
Islam got back into the pool and was placed just three to five feet from the pool edge, with another Marine assigned to assist him as needed. But it was immediately clear that he was struggling to finish the swim. A few minutes after starting to tread water again, he went underwater for a few seconds. In the following minutes he submerged again and again. At least once, an instructor had to help him back to the surface.
Finally, the instructors warned Islam that if he went under again, they would remove him from the pool. He submerged for the last time, and an instructor pulled him to the side. Still conscious, Islam used his final strength to haul himself onto the pool deck, where he passed out. A corpsman and then a medical team worked to resuscitate him, but Islam never regained consciousness.
In a memo that followed the investigation, Col. Stefan Bien, commander of SOI–West, said Islam’s refusal to give up, coupled with the Marine instructors’ focus on completing the exercise, contributed to the tragic miscalculation.
“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.
In response to the tragedy, the Marine Corps has initiated a slate of changes that aim to better acclimatize Marines entering the recon program and make training more safe, according to Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for Training and Education Command. MART platoon will be replaced later this year by the Basic Reconnaissance Primer Course, which unlike MART will be a formal program of instruction. All Marines entering the program will have their water survival certification level validated, and will have a full week of acclimatization before beginning instruction. The swim screening event has been dropped from the program entirely. In addition to more regular safety stand-downs, Gibson said, instructors are now being specially trained to recognize the difference between signs of aquatic distress and drowning.
Naval Criminal Investigative Service is still completing its probe into the incident, and Gibson said decisions regarding possible legal actions against Marines involved in the incident are still pending. Reconnaissance Training Company is now being commanded by its former executive officer, Capt. Jason Quinn; a yet-to-be-named major is set to assume command in July.
Marine Corps Times has reached out to Burch for comment about his relief.
James Islam said he thinks the policy changes Marines are making adequately address the problems that may have contributed to the tragedy. Instead of ascribing blame, Islam said he and his family are more interested in honoring the Marine recon community Joshua so admired, and helping others in his memory.
To date, the family has raised more than $20,000 through the Joshua19Foundation, created in honor of their son to support causes he cared about, from youth baseball to Marine Corps ROTC. They’ve also given away hundreds of dog tags stamped with a favorite Bible verse of his: Joshua 1:9.
“Have I not commanded you?” the verse reads. “Be strong and courageous.”