Deaths of elite military parachutists stun observers
The recent deaths of three elite military parachutists near Marana, Ariz. are a lot like three fatal lightning strikes in the same place.
It's virtually unheard of, experts say. And it's raising eyebrows in the world of covert warfare.
All the victims were special-operations troops who had returned safely from repeat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. All had extensive training in the aerial stealth techniques used to infiltrate enemy terrain - methods each was practicing on the day he plunged to his death.
That's what makes the deaths so confounding.
"There would be a one-in-a-million chance for this to happen once or twice. To have it happen three times is almost unbelievable," said Robby Robinson, a retired special-operations commando with more than 1,000 free-fall jumps in the United States and Britain.
"These people are the cream of the crop, the best trained, the best equipped," said Robinson of Tucson, Ariz.. "At that level, they don't make many mistakes."
All three of the deadly jumps occurred in the last six months, each originating from the Parachute Training and Testing Facility at Pinal Air Park, just north of Marana.
The site is run by U.S. Special Operations Command, and troops who train there execute some of the military's most demanding missions.
Military officials haven't yet said what caused the fatalities, and training continues. Experts say many factors can be at play in such cases, including equipment failure, fatigue, lack of oxygen - even overconfidence.
More than 25,000 jumps a year take place at the local site, said Ken McGraw, a special-operations spokesman.
Fatalities are so rare, McGraw said, that until the recent string of deaths from the Pinal Air Park, there had been only one similar case nationwide in recent years: the 2005 death of an Army Ranger at Fort Lewis, Wash.
The first local accident occurred Feb. 13, killing Navy SEAL Thomas J. Valentine, 37, a father of two. Three weeks later, on March 6, a second accident killed fellow SEAL Lance M. Vaccaro, 35. A third accident on Aug. 13 claimed Army Ranger Christopher M. Roulund, 27.
The Navy is finished probing the SEAL deaths, but officials say they're not yet ready to release results. The service has said the causes were unrelated. The Army Ranger's death remains under investigation.
Former SEAL Nelson Miller, who manages the Pinal training site, would not comment.
McGraw, the special-operations spokesman, said training was halted after each death, then resumed after investigators found conditions at the site were not a factor in the deaths.
Jay Stokes, a retired Green Beret, vice president of the U.S. Parachute Association and former safety officer at a military jump school, said the parachuting techniques used in special operations are high-risk.
Even so, he said, it's hair-raising to think of three fatalities so close together in one place.
"It just doesn't make sense to me," said Stokes, who has been involved in accident investigations and now runs a Yuma firm that does parachute training.
Two types of free-fall techniques are typically used to insert special-operations troops into hostile territory.
Both involve jumping from frigidly high altitudes - usually around 25,000 feet - with altimeters and, often, with oxygen tanks because the air is so thin.
In one type of jump, known as HALO, short for high altitude-low opening, jumpers hurtle toward the ground at high speed, keeping their chutes closed until shortly before landing, a technique that allows them to arrive without drawing much notice.
The second type of jump is a HAHO, short for high altitude-high opening, a tactic commonly used in international border areas.
In this version, troops make their jumps in friendly airspace, pop their chutes quickly, then drift at high altitude - invisible to radar - into target areas up to 20 miles away.
Stokes said many factors could play a part in training fatalities: unexpected wind turbulence, the use of new and unfamiliar equipment, faulty altimeters or problems with oxygen supply.
He also said it's possible that troops who deploy often might not be as alert as usual, though special-operations personnel typically are in top physical shape with high stamina levels.
Roulund, the Army Ranger who died near Marana, had deployed a total of six times to Iraq and to Afghanistan, his family said. The Navy wouldn't say how many times the two SEALs had been to war, only that they had deployed repeatedly. Families of the SEALs couldn't be reached for comment.
McGraw, the special-operations spokesman, said the military constantly monitors the well-being of such troops.
Stokes, the former Green Beret, said overconfidence is one of the most common factors in training deaths involving seasoned personnel. After years of successful jumps, some may momentarily lose sight of the dangers involved, he said.
"What happens with senior people is that they have so much experience they almost think they are bulletproof. They've done it so many times."
What's critical now is that lessons are learned from the tragedies, Stokes said. "It's unfortunate enough that all these people died. If we don't learn something from it, that would make it even worse."
McGraw, of Special Operations Command, said the military is committed to finding out what happened in each case.
A relative of one of the victims said he's pleased with the updates he's received so far and is confident the military probes will be handled correctly.
"I'm more than satisfied. They've been extremely upfront," said Art Roulund, a retired Marine from Jacksonville, N.C., and the father of deceased Army Ranger Christopher Roulund.
The elder Roulund wouldn't elaborate on what the Army told him, but he said it left him feeling "very confident" that other Rangers are not at risk in the aftermath of his son's death.
"Sometimes," he said, "things just happen."