Top commander relieved after training death of 18-year-old Weddington Marine

A top Marine Corps training commander has been relieved of his duties after a four-month investigation into the death of Josh Islam, an 18-year-old Marine from Weddington.

Islam drowned Jan. 13 during a water-screening test to get into reconnaissance training at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Maj. Adam Burch, commanding officer of Reconnaissance Training Company at School of Infantry-West, was relieved on May 15, Marines spokesman Col. Sean Gibson said Thursday.

Brig. Gen. John Simmons removed Burch for a loss of confidence in his ability to lead Marines and for allowing unsafe conditions that contributed to Islam’s death.

The drowning has also prompted a sweeping review of all training at the reconnaissance school, including how to assess a Marine’s swimming ability. The specific screening event that Islam underwent has been eliminated, Gibson said.

An investigative report obtained by the Observer through a Freedom of Information Act request details errors in judgment by trainers overseeing Islam as he attempted to tread water in his camouflage uniform, without boots, for 30 minutes. The report also found training and screening deficiencies.

Decisions about possible legal action against the instructors are pending, Gibson said. An investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is not complete.

Islam’s father, James Islam, who now lives in Gainesville, Fla., has been searching for answers about why his son died. He has told the Observer that his son, a pitcher on Weddington High School’s state championship team, was an excellent swimmer.

Josh’s passion was to join the Marines after graduating last year, he said.

“A lot of people live their lives and never follow their passion, and he had the guts to do it,” Islam said on Thursday.

Struggling to swim

Islam completed recruit training, including water tests, at Parris Island, S.C., in August 2013, according to the investigative report.

The January water screening took place at Camp Las Pulgas, which is in the center of Camp Pendleton.

Islam completed the first event, a 500-meter swim, without incident, the report said. He participated in a 25-meter underwater swim without passing, and then completed a rifle retrieval and rifle tow without incident, the report said.

Fellow students observed Islam struggling from the time he began treading water, which was the final part of the screening, the report said.

One witness said Islam’s arms were flapping out to the side and that his head went under water three times for a second or two in the first 17 minutes, according to the report.

Another witness heard Islam say continuously, “I can’t, I can’t,” and the instructors replying, “Do you quit?”

“I don’t quit,” Islam replied every time, the witness said, according to the report.

Instructors failed to make clear to swimmers that they wouldn’t be penalized if they chose to leave the pool at any time, the report said.

Ten minutes into the treading, Islam was ordered to leave the pool and rest. He climbed out by himself, the report said. Three or four minutes later, he asked to re-enter the pool and was given permission.

He remained 3 to 5 feet from the edge of the pool, and within two to three minutes began to struggle again. This time, he showed no signs of “a panicked swimmer,” the report said. Instructors helped him to the surface at least once.

An instructor warned Islam that if he went under again he would be removed from the pool. He went under again, and a supervisor pulled him out and to the side of the pool.

Islam got himself up and onto the pool gutter, but when he tried to raise himself inches more onto the pool deck, “he took one last breath and went limp,” the report said.

A witness said Islam appeared to be conscious as he was moved onto the pool deck. On the deck, his body went limp and pool staff were directed to call 911.

Instructors and corpsmen performed CPR until emergency workers arrived and continued attempts to revive him. He was declared dead at the pool.

Instructor error

The report said that while Islam’s instructors had years of training and experience, they failed to recognize the distinction between a swimmer who’s in distress and one who’s drowning. A swimmer who’s drowning is no longer able to yell for help or flail his arms, experts say.

Gibson said instructors are now being trained to recognize such distinctions.

All Marines entering the program now have their water survival certification level validated, and they get a full week to acclimate before undergoing instruction. Islam arrived at Camp Pendleton from the East Coast three days before the swimming tests, the report said.

In 2006, the Marines reviewed swim training across the Corps after two swim training deaths the prior year, according to published reports. Changes included additional training and more instructors at pools.

James Islam said Thursday he believes the latest changes will benefit future Marines.

Military service runs in the Islam family. James Islam’s father served in the Army. James Islam and his wife’s 14-year-old son is in the Air Force JROTC in high school, and their 11-year-old daughter is a Young Marine. Members of his wife’s family serve in the Navy and Air Force, and his cousin graduated from West Point.

“This is an important part of our lives, and we don’t want to take away from the heroism and dedication and sacrifice so many have made and given, because there was a tragedy,” he said.

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