The death of a Navy SEAL trainee during a water exercise in Coronado, California, has been ruled a homicide by the San Diego County Medical Examiner in a report that states the trainee was repeatedly "dunked" underwater by an instructor.
Active-duty Navy seaman James Derek Lovelace, 21, was at Naval Base Coronado undergoing training regimens on May 6. He completed a round of land-based trainings before heading to the Naval Amphibious Base for drills in a swimming pool, according to a report released Wednesday by the medical examiner (ME).
The training session in the swimming pool was supposed to last about two hours. The drill "consisted of swimming the length of the pool, which was depth-graded between four and 15 feet, in their fatigues and boots," the ME report said.
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The exercise — dubbed "Combat Swimmer Orientation" — also called for trainees to tread water while their masks were filled with water. Instructors were supposed to create "adverse" conditions by splashing, making waves and yelling at the trainees, the report said.
The instructors, however, were told not to pull or dunk students underwater.
About 40 minutes into the exercise, Lovelace began experiencing distress and was pulled from the water. He was initially responsive but soon lost consciousness, according to the report.
Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. Medics were called to the base and Lovelace was rushed to Sharp-Coronado Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 2:36 p.m.
Officials launched an investigation into Lovelace’s death.
According to the report, on June 29, an investigator with the ME’s office watched video surveillance of the pool exercise provided by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
The investigator said the video shows Lovelace struggling in the water. At one point, an instructor pointed out Lovelace, approached him, and dunked him underwater. That instructor then continued to "follow" Lovelace around the pool.
Other instructors later joined the dunking and splashing of Lovelace, which continued for about five minutes, the ME investigator said.
Several instructors were in the water, while others were on the edges on the pool and on dive platforms during the drill.
At one point, another trainee tried to help Lovelace by keeping his head above the water, according to the report. The instructor, however, dunked Lovelace again, partially pulling him out of the water before pushing him back in.
Eventually, Lovelace was lifted out completely.
In the end, the autopsy report declared Lovelace’s cause of death to be drowning, and the manner of death was ruled a homicide due to the "actions and inactions of the instructors."
"Although the manner of death could be considered by some as an accident, especially given that the decedent was in a rigorous training program that was meant to simulate an 'adverse' environment, it is our opinion that the actions, and inactions, of the instructors and other individuals involved were excessive and directly contributed to the death, and the manner of death is best classified as homicide," the report stated.
Lovelace enlisted in the U.S. Navy boot camp in November 2015 and began Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) in January 2016.
Naval reports indicated Lovelace was not a strong swimmer. The autopsy said Lovelace had been prescribed Singulair a year before his death, used for the treatment of asthma, prevention of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction and relief of allergic rhinitis.
The instructor tied to the deadly drill was reassigned amid the investigation into Lovelace's death.
On Wednesday, Navy officials said the internal investigation into the incident is ongoing.
Lovelace was the fifth Navy SEAL in four months to lose consciousness in a BUD/S pool exercise, according to Navy safety data reported by NBC News, representing an increase in pool blackout reports compared to recent years.