5 in 8 days worsen 1st MEF's bad year
By Rick Rogers
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 23, 2008
CAMP PENDLETON – Three servicemen from Camp Pendleton and two from Twentynine Palms have died in the past eight days, and the confirmed or probable causes are homicide, suicide and traffic accidents.
None of the Marine officials interviewed for this story could remember a worse week in terms of noncombat losses.
Camp Pendleton is home to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, commonly called the 1st MEF, which includes troops at Twentynine Palms and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
At least 13 Marines from the 1st MEF – most of them stationed at Camp Pendleton – have died this year. Most of the causes are believed to have been vehicle crashes, homicides and suicides, although some cases are still being investigated.
By comparison, six Camp Pendleton-based Marines have died from combat in Iraq during the same time period, according to the Defense Department.
Officials for Camp Pendleton and the 1st MEF didn't immediately provide or confirm the death toll for 2008 or past years. They also didn't say whether the recent deaths may have been linked to drug or alcohol abuse, gang activity or suicide.
They said those questions must be submitted as a Freedom of Information Act request or, in the case of gang problems, to Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon.
It can take weeks to years to receive responses to such requests.
In addition, it's unclear whether any of the dead servicemen suffered combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety ahead of a deployment to Iraq.
“It's extremely unfortunate to lose any Marine, especially here in the States, where we should feel secure,” said a senior officer for the 1st MEF who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak with news media about the cases.
“I can definitely say that the commanders and commands are looking into each one of these deaths to determine the cause, and then backtracking to see if we need to do anything different to avoid these things happening again.”
Investigations into three recent deaths are being led by civilian law enforcement agencies, according to a statement from the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. The division is part of the 1st MEF.
“Two of these deaths were caused by apparent motorcycle accidents, an area of deep concern for our Corps as motorcycle fatalities continue to rise at an alarming rate,” the statement said. “In a recently released All-Marine Message, the commandant outlines guidance and directives designed to curb motorcycle injuries and fatalities.”
Motorcycle-related deaths in the Marine Corps have risen every year since 2004, when there were seven. Last year, there were 19, according to the Naval Safety Center.
As for efforts to minimize combat stress and substance abuse, Camp Pendleton officials said the base has programs, policies and officers devoted to outreach and education. They also said each unit conducts monthly random drug tests on a mandated percentage of its Marines.
The recent succession of deaths started May 15, when Camp Pendleton-based Pfc. Stephen Serrano, 20, was found fatally shot in a drainage ditch in San Clemente.
Then Camp Pendleton-based Lance Cpl. Samuel Stucky, 19, died Saturday. A day earlier, he had been found unconscious in his Camp Pendleton barracks with a gunshot wound.
Also on Saturday, Camp Pendleton-based Lance Cpl. Noah Cole, 25, died from injuries suffered in an apparent motorcycle accident. Cole, who was visiting relatives in Grand Rapids, Mich., was scheduled to deploy on his second combat tour early next month.
And again Saturday, Twentynine Palms-based Pfc. Jack Kenner, 22, died in Upland after he tried to maneuver his motorcycle between two vehicles, struck one of them and crashed.
Finally, on Tuesday, Cpl. Chad Oligschlaeger, 21, was found dead in his barracks room at Twentynine Palms. Camp Pendleton officials said the cause of death is under investigation.
Staff researcher Denise Davidson contributed to this report.
Rick Rogers: (760) 476-8212; firstname.lastname@example.org