After Citadel grad’s death, bill in Congress aims to stop military vehicle rollovers

Note: Marine 1st Lt. Conor McDowell is a member of The Citadel Class of 2017.

As seen in The Post and Courier, by Thomas Novelly

WASHINGTON — In 2019, Conor McDowell, a Citadel graduate and first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, died instantly when his light-armored vehicle flipped over during a training exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

In the months since, the 24-year-old Marine’s family has lobbied Congress to investigate their son’s death, asking them to hold the military accountable for hundreds of vehicle rollovers that have killed dozens of service members in the last decade. 

Now, a new bill in Congress titled the “1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell Safety in Armed Forces Equipment Act of 2021” aims to improve the safety and effectiveness of military tactical vehicles in his honor. 

Michael McDowell, Conor’s father, said the proposal is one of five bills in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act related to rollover deaths, but the only one named for the former Citadel cadet. 

“We don’t want this just to be about Conor,” McDowell told The Post and Courier. “We want a deep- dive investigation.”

The legislation was introduced by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats. If passed it “would help supervisors mitigate and prevent fatal training accidents and develop performance criteria and measurable standards for driver training programs,” the senators said in a news release. 

The main part of the program involves installing equipment on vehicles that would record potential hazards, near-accidents and rollovers so the military can have updated data to use during training. The legislation would:

  • Create a pilot program which would record data on Army and Marine Corps tactical vehicles.
  • Identify near-miss accidents and potential hazards that would otherwise go undetected without the data recorder.
  • Assess individual driver proficiency to allow for tailored training.
  • Establish a database for more consistent implementation of safety programs across installations and units.
  • Require commanders to incorporate the latest data sets and statistics into safety programs.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Rob Wittman, R-Va.

“The safety of our young men and women in uniform, particularly during training, must be our top priority,” Brown said. “Tactical vehicle accidents are preventable if we improve our training and ensure a culture of safety within the ranks.”

The legislation follows a 103-page report from the Government Accountability Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress, on such rollovers. Sweeping data was released July 14 revealing that training inconsistency and overconfidence led to the service deaths, as well as a lack of safety personnel who can identify hazards during exercises. 

From 2010 to 2019, the services reported 3,753 noncombat accidents resulting in 123 service member deaths, the report stated. Rollovers were the most deadly accidents, accounting for 63 percent of the fatalities.

One of those occurred on May 9, 2019, when Conor found himself leading a light-armored vehicle training patrol at Pendleton. The rocky terrain was difficult to navigate during the 10-day training exercise. Despite using all the intelligence at their disposal, the eight-wheeled vehicle began tipping into an 18-foot hole covered by tall grass. As the 12-ton machine slowly turned belly up, Conor pushed a lance corporal who was positioned in the machine gun turret back inside at the last minute, according to his family.

He saved his comrade’s life but the newly commissioned first lieutenant was crushed instantly.

Nearly three years after his son’s death, Conor’s father said he’s glad to finally see serious attention being paid to training reform and rollover investigations. He said there is bipartisan support for many of the rollover bills in the NDAA, and said he’s eager to see them pass this year. 

“There are several powerful new measures to accompany this one,” Michael McDowell wrote on Facebook. “Conor has truly been honored.”