Navy SEAL Jason Kortz was 10,000 feet over Perris, California, about to perform his first a high-altitude, high-open jump while wearing night vision goggles and weighed down with bulky, cumbersome combat gear. America's elite special operations troops conduct such training missions to prepare for the types of high-stakes, clandestine missions that have become a centerpiece of the U.S. military's war on terrorism.
Tragically, this jump was also Kortz's last.
As a student in the Navy’s Advanced Tactical Air Assault Course, Kortz had completed 32 prior free-fall jumps. But this training mission was much more complex — and it became a catastrophe almost the instant he exited the aircraft. Tumbling head over heels at speeds exceeding 100 mph, Kortz panicked. He was unable to arch his body and stabilize the fall, military investigators concluded.
He deployed his main parachute, but the uncontrolled fall caused it to tangle around his body. Kortz radioed the jumpmaster, who told him to cut his main chute and deploy the backup. When he did, it got tangled in the main chute and wrapped around his gear. Moments later, the third class special warfare operator was dead.
The Navy’s investigation, released to Military Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act, found troubling flaws in the SEALs' jump-training programs. Officials determined Kortz was ordered to perform the complicated jump before he was ready, and that his death was "preventable." Adm. Brian Losey, then the commander of Naval Special Warfare, ordered a thorough review of his command's air operations.
But Kortz's death on March 18, 2015, was far from an isolated incident. He was one of 11 special operators who died in such training accidents between 2011 and 2016, a 60 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to 13 years worth of records obtained and analyzed by Military Times.
This rise in training deaths alarmed senior leaders at U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the SEALs and each of the four military services' most elite units. In September 2015, just two weeks after the investigation into Kortz's death was completed, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM's commander at the time, quietly launched an intervention, halting all free-fall jumps for three months. Votel is now the head of U.S. Central Command.
Across Special Operations Command, his cessation order was vast and included several urgent steps to enhance safety measures, Military Times has learned. A SOCOM-wide review of all free-fall programs was conducted, focusing on procedures, doctrine and equipment. Additionally, all jumpmasters were retrained and sent back to their units to re-qualify all jumpers. The Military Freefall Working Group was established to review lessons learned from these episodes.
A SOCOM spokesman, Ken McGraw, expressed confidence that any shortcomings in the jump-training program have been identified and addressed.
But internally, SOCOM officials have struggled to identify a definitive cause behind the unsettling trend, and they have declined to discuss any lessons learned from the force-wide investigation. A Military Times review of accident investigations involving Army, Navy and Air Force special operations personnel revealed troubling training shortfalls, lapsed jump qualifications, and a number of accidents and deaths at least partially attributed to overconfidence on the part of the jumpers or the trainers. To that end, the spike in deaths has raised the question of whether there is a cultural problem inside some parts of Special Operations Command, and whether its fraternity of elite warriors fostered a complacency that undermined safety.
"Being ‘special’ shouldn't be an excuse to cut corners or accept needless risk in either training or operations," said one retired senior special operations officer whom Military Times asked to review the findings. The retired officer spoke on the condition of anonymity. "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," the operator said.
An Air Force Special Operations Command investigation into a 2015 midair collision between two special tactics airmen noted overconfidence on the part of one as a contributing factor in the tragedy. During the incident, which took place at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, a group of nine airmen jumped at 10,000 feet, but one jumper descended too rapidly and caused the collision at 8,000 feet that killed both men. The airman "overestimated his personal capability to avoid other jumpers while descending rapidly to reach a lower jumper and substantially contributed to the mishap," the investigation concludes.
Privately, SOCOM officials point to several factors that may help explain the spike in jump-training deaths. Since 9/11, the command has expanded dramatically. Today's force of 70,000 elite soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is nearly double what it was in 2001. That means more operators who are doing jump training and, in turn, reporting more mishaps, officials said.
Others in the community have said special operations training is inherently dangerous, that accidents are unavoidable when preparing for the military's most high-risk missions. "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," said one enlisted service member who served with special operations forces and spoke on condition of anonymity. "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."
NO COMMON THREADS
Since 2013, SEALs have lost four operators in jump training accidents. The Air Force has lost three operators over the past decade. The Marines lost three since 2009.
The Army lost one Green Beret and one Ranger in the same time period.
Officials say there was no single factor attributed to the jump deaths, which varied in both type and service. Eight of the 11 SOCOM jump deaths since 2011 involved free falls —– with heavy combat gear — before the jumper opened his parachute. That includes high-altitude, high-open, or HAHO, jumps as well as the most dangerous jump: high-altitude, low-open, or HALO jumps, which are required for the most secretive missions. Three of the 11 jump deaths involved static-line jumps, in which the parachute opens immediately after leaving the plane.
A review of the Navy's investigations found there was a range of reasons for the deaths. In Kortz's case, there were indications he had an irregular posture during his previous jumps, but he had never struggled to stabilize himself previously, so it went uncorrected. Perhaps even more distressing was that other SEALs who were present when Kortz died, when questioned by investigators, couldn’t properly describe the safety procedures for stopping an unstable descent, according to the investigators.
Another investigation uncovered more gear problems and concerns about the SEALs' training pipeline. Chief Special Warfare Operator Bradley Cavner died June 23, 2014, during a static-line jump, generally considered safer and performed at lower altitudes under chutes that deploy almost immediately upon exiting the aircraft. In Cavner's case, his reserve chute deployed as he was standing in the doorway of a C-130 preparing to jump, ripping him out of the aircraft. Cavner struck the side of the aircraft with colossal force, cracking his helmet and killing him instantly.
Investigators said this was likely the result of a loose cord in the parachute rig, which let wind catch underneath some of the chute's tuck tabs, turning the material into a sail that generated enough force to dislodge one of the closing pins, which deploys the chute. That was not a new problem, however. A Navy investigation found four separate incidents of the T-11R chute deploying because of wind blasts, in 2012 and 2013, but Naval Special Warfare was not aware of the incidents at the time Cavner's death.
That's because the Navy, unlike the other services, runs its own static line jump school. (The others go through the Army’s airborne course at Fort Benning in Georgia.) Safety problems and lessons learned were not routinely shared between the Navy and Army schools, so the SEALs were mostly unaware of similar issues affecting the Army. Navy jump instructors were aware of at least one other incident of a T-11R reserve chute deploying during an Army jump, but they learned about it via YouTube, not through official channels, according to an internal Navy report. Instructors showed the video to their jump students, telling them the chute deployed because the aircraft was in a turn and the jumper was near the exit ramp exposed to the wind.
After Cavner’s death, officials were recommended to set up an information sharing system for mishaps.
U.S. Navy sailors assigned to Navy Special Warfare Logistics Support Unit 1 parachute over comrades afloat in the Pacific Ocean. The exercise is designed to maintain NSW personnel's jump proficiency and provide opportunities for instructor qualification. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John R. Fischer)
Other cases seem to have isolated causes. In 2013, Chief Special Warfare Operator Brett Shadle died in a midair collision with another jumper. The investigation blamed improper spacing caused by a "breakdown in situational awareness." A SEAL Team Six operator, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class William Marston, died after losing consciousness during his descent. The investigator found that jumpers in his aircraft were using nonstandard, unauthorized gear — including altimeters and sunglasses — and that some of Marston's quals had lapsed. Neither factored into his death, however.
In a statement, Naval Special Warfare said it is committed to safety and cited the "thousands of successful training evolutions" it conducts each year.
"Naval Special Warfare ... conducts detailed risk assessments for each of these events to mitigate the risk of injury or death to our operators participating in the training," said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Walton, spokesman. "Training deaths are tragic, and we mourn those who have been lost in training just as we mourn those lost in combat. Moreover, we pursue the lessons learned from both combat and training with equal vigor to improve the quality of mission-critical high-risk training; and the safety and protection of our personnel during training events and combat equally."
CLOSE CALLS IN THE ARMY
While the Army has experienced fewer jump deaths compared to the Navy, it has not been immune from reckless airborne operations. U.S. Army Special Operations Command saw three serious parachuting accidents between 2006 and 2016. Two resulted in the deaths of a Green Beret officer and an enlisted Ranger, while another sent four Special Forces soldiers to the hospital with injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to a concussion and severe electrocution, according to three investigations obtained by Military Times through the Freedom of Information Act.
Seven Army jumpers went up near Hurlburt Field, Florida, to practice a water jump in late 2015. It was a windy day, and so with each of three passes, the aircraft adjusted several hundred meters east — 925 in all before the first jumper exited. But the team didn't adjust the point of impact for wind, the investigation found, because the operators didn't follow proper safety procedures and review maps of the drop zone, which would have revealed hazards in the terrain below, including rocky beaches and electrical wires.
As soon as the soldiers began to jump, they realized, one by one, that they couldn't land in the water. The first jumper turned into the wind to avoid the rocks, but woke up in an ambulance with cuts to his head, face, and knee. Another saw the first two jumpers land on the rocks, but he managed to land on some asphalt and escape injury, though he was dragged 20 meters across the surface.
"There was no clear understanding on how to account for wind conditions, and no discussion on who would be responsible for initial and subsequent adjustments based on those conditions," an Army investigator wrote.
The most seriously injured soldier noticed the high winds and tried to run with the current to get clear of the rocks, only to collide with power lines. He was covered in electrical burns and wrapped so tightly in his parachute that he was suffocating, but he was rescued by yet another jumper, who used a dive tool to cut him free.
In the end, the investigator recommended that two soldiers be reprimanded, placing blame in part on a perceived sense of overconfidence among the operators.
Votel's intervention appears to have had a positive effect, though. SOCOM logged one jump death in 2016. The Naval Safety Center also reported only a single non-fatal mishap.
David Larter is a staff writer for Navy Times. On Twitter: @DavidLarter. Meghann Myers is a staff writer for Army Times. On Twitter:
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.