A senior Democratic senator is pushing Defense Department leaders to create new processes to investigate disasters within the military in an effort to better prevent other tragedies in the future.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Tuesday, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said the current way such major mishaps are handled by service investigators does not provide enough oversight or instill public confidence in the response.

She wants a new, independent system to ensure “significant changes to address the underlying causes of the mishap and the culture that permitted them to occur.” That would include the firing of troops or civilians involved in the mistakes and possible punishment for service chiefs and secretaries.

Her complaints stem from the Navy’s handling of fuel spills at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. In late 2021, nearly 6,000 individuals were poisoned by water contaminated with petroleum leaking from tanks there, even after Navy officials insisted the water was safe to consume.

In response to mistakes related to that contamination, Navy officials ordered letters of censure for three retired admirals and non-judicial punishments for other personnel involved. Hirono called those moves “not sufficient to address the root causes of this catastrophe.”

She also pointed to the 2017 collisions of the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald with civilian cargo ships — accidents that cost 17 sailors their lives — and the deaths of nine service members during the 2020 sinking of a Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle in California as other examples of disasters without enough investigative rigor afterwards.

In all of those cases, investigations and punishments were handled by service officials who Hirono said could be more likely to lessen the severity of their findings to save embarrassment for their peers and leadership.

Under her plan, any accident that “surpasses $1 billion in damage or incurs a loss of five or more lives” would be elevated to reporting authorities outside the individual services. All criminal or administrative punishment for such events would be mandated to be issued within a year of the disaster.

Defense Department officials have not yet responded to the request.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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