New pool rules
Corps overhauls training after drownings

Christian Lowe
Times staff writer

The Marine Corps has launched a sweeping initiative to change swim training for recruits and new officers, with an eye toward revamping water-survival training Corps-wide.

Chief among the changes is a shift in the atmosphere of the pool deck to make students feel less stress. Other changes include placing more instructors in the pool for oversight, reducing the number of recruits and new officers participating in certain lessons and beefing up the training of instructors.

The changes were prompted by a Marine inspector general investigation following two swim training deaths last year, along with Commandant Gen. Mike Hagee’s call for wide-ranging adjustments in the way the Corps teaches Marines how to survive in the water.

Though Marine officials admit the changes might not have prevented last year’s fatalities, they say the overhaul will create a much safer training environment.

“You can never guarantee that you’re never going to injure somebody or, heaven forbid, lose a Marine’s life in training. But that’s the goal,” said Maj. Gen. Keith Stalder, head of Marine Corps Training and Education Command, in a March 23 interview at Quantico, Va.

“If there’s an incremental adjustment that you can make that makes what you do better in effectiveness or safety, you’ve got to take that step,” he said.

TECom has also launched a study of all swim training and requalification procedures throughout the Corps, including recon swim training, instructor training and possibly water-survival training for aviators. Officials intend to standardize the instruction and make needed changes to improve all water-safety instruction.

Deaths forced review

Last year was a tumultuous one for Marine water-safety training. In February, Jason Tharp, a 19-year-old recruit from Sutton, W.Va., died after being pulled unconscious from a swimming pool at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., during his final day of water-survival training. His instructor, Staff Sgt. Nadya Lopez, was found not guilty of negligent homicide at a Feb. 22 general court-martial at Parris Island after being accused of “refusing to react” to Tharp’s plea for help.

At MCRD San Diego in August, Staff Sgt. Andrew Gonzales, 30, a new drill instructor with 1st Recruit Training Battalion’s Bravo Company who was attending a training session designed to prepare him for a course to become a water-survival instructor, drowned after instructors practiced rescue holds on him. The two staff sergeants working with him at the time have been charged with negligent homicide and are awaiting recommendations from an investigating officer as to whether their case should go to court-martial.

The deaths of Tharp and Gonzales prompted the Corps’ inspector general to launch an investigation into recruit swim training late last year.

Officials wanted to focus on basic, entry-level training first and fix any problems there before looking into other swim instruction.

“They did a study … that had some very good recommendations, and they’re recommendations that will make our training, we think, more safe and more effective,” Stalder said.

The Corps trains nearly 34,000 new swimmers per year.

The changes were put into effect at Parris Island early this year, with MCRD San Diego and The Basic School at Quantico following soon after.

First, the pool decks where recruits and new officers are taught combat water safety will be designated a “low-stress environment,” with signs posted to remind instructors that the focus is on teaching new Marines to swim.

Many pointed to instructors’ heavy-handed treatment of Tharp as a contributing factor in his death. News footage filmed the day before Tharp died showed him refusing to swim, only to be berated, grabbed and elbowed by his senior drill instructor.

“We want recruit training to be somewhat stressful — there’s some value in that,” Stalder said.

“But in the case of swim training, we recognize that … there’s some inherent stress associated with just swimming itself,” he said. “We don’t want to add the two on top of each other.”

Additional changes include adding a second supervising instructor to the 25-meter swim, reducing the number of recruits allowed on the dive towers to six, assigning a company-grade officer to remain at the pool during all training and barring all but the recruits’ senior drill instructors from the area.

New swimmers will also have the same instructor for all deep-water requirements to foster more trust and familiarity between teacher and student, officials said.

More changes coming

But TECom officials aren’t stopping with boot camp and TBS training.

In February, the Corps formed a “training review group” to examine swim instruction throughout the service and recommend changes.

The group is made up of experts from East and West Coast-based expeditionary warfare training groups, TECom, the inspector general’s office and the aviation and reconnaissance communities.

The results of the review are due July 1, but if the group finds things that could be changed immediately, they’ll do it, Stalder added.

The command will also establish a “swim training center of excellence” to help implement the changes recommended by the review group and “get some adult supervision on this whole swim issue,” Stalder said.

The center is expected to be established by July, though it is still unclear where it would be located.

Officials hope that the combined impact of the top-to-bottom review, the new recruit and officer training changes, and the center of excellence will standardize swim training and stave off another deadly year like 2005.

“What we’ve done is try to learn [lessons] from both [deaths] and then apply them in whatever incremental way we could to improve both the safety and training product,” Stalder said.

“I don’t know that any one of [the changes] would have been the silver bullet that would have prevented those tragic losses.”

Focus on safety
Changes to recruit and officer swim training:

• Assign a company-grade officer as pool officer-in-charge who remains on the pool deck during training and conducts a briefing clarifying roles and responsibilities with series and company commanders.

• Reduce the number of recruits allowed on towers to six.

• Post one swim instructor in the water near the impact area below the tower to allow a better view of the recruit under the water after jumping.

• Supervise each unqualified swimmer attempting the 25-meter swim with two swim instructors — one in the water and one walking on the side of the pool.

• Maintain a one-arm distance from the side during the four-minute personal survival exercise for unqualified swimmers.

• Supervise each unqualified swimmer attempting the four-minute personal survival exercise with two swim instructors — one in the water and one on the edge of the pool.

• Maintain the same instructor for unqualified swimmers during all deep-water requirements.

• Maintain the pool as a low-stress area; post signs stating, “This is a low-stress environment.”

• Install nonskid strips on all towers, ladders and decks in the locker rooms.

• Conduct tower jumps one recruit at a time.

• Conduct the deep-water, 25-meter swim one recruit at a time.

• Conduct the 40-meter combat travel stroke two recruits at a time.

• Maintain a 3- to 5-meter distance between recruits during the 50-meter deep-water swim.

• Maintain a maximum of 12 — down from 14 — recruits in the water for the buddy-pack tow.

• Certify all swim instructors as American Red Cross CPR instructors, which includes the use of oxygen during resuscitation.

• Stage oxygen tanks to assist with resuscitation attempts.
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