Lt. Lance Leone with one of the balls that inadequately marked the wires into which his helo crashed in 2010. More than two years later, Leone is still facing the consequences as his promotion is under review. (Photo courtesy of Lt. Lance Leone)
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Coast Guard Lt. Lance Leone has gotten good at waiting.
After a July 2010 helicopter crash in which he was the only survivor, he waited to be cleared to fly again. He waited for the final action memo on the crash, which found him partially responsible for the deaths of his crew members — a finding he disputes.
He waited for the Article 32 hearing in Alaska, which did not recommend following through on charges of negligent homicide, destruction of government property and dereliction of duty.
And now, more than two years later, he's waiting for a special promotion board to decide whether he'll become a lieutenant commander — if the board says no, it'll all but end his 10-year Coast Guard career.
"Every day it drags a little bit," Leone said. "This has been a chronic endurance battle of willpower."
The driving motivator for Leone is being able to wake up and work with "all the Guardians who are currently standing the watch and all the future Coast Guard members who plan to join."
Leone, 32, will know his promotion status by August, likely sooner. And while some, including the vice commandant, say the case is about accountability and higher safety standards in the aviation community, Leone said he thinks it's sending the message to Coast Guard aircrews that the service will not support them if an accident does happen.
"I always felt like that 1 percent of the time you'd made the wrong decision, that they'd have your back," Leone said. "Once I was charged … it started people questioning whether that 1 percent of the time when the judgment call they'd made went the wrong way … that maybe there's going to be some really bad repercussions."
Crash and aftermath
Leone was co-piloting when the MH-60T Jayhawk crashed off the coast of La Push, Wash. The helo was returning to Sitka, Alaska, when it hit power lines, broke into five pieces and fell into the water. The other three crew members — pilot Lt. Sean Krueger, Aviation Maintenance Technician 1st Class Adam Hoke and AMT2 Brett Banks — were killed.
The final action memo, released in March by then-Vice Commandant Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, found that Leone was negligent in not challenging the pilot's decision to fly lower and faster than stated in the flight plan. The report also found that the power lines, which were maintained by the Coast Guard, were not properly marked — the warning balls were too small, faded and in need of replacement. Following the accident, the lines were removed and replaced with a generator, the report states.
"The Coast Guard was profoundly impacted by this tragic event that resulted in the loss of three Coast Guard air crewmen and serious injury of a fourth," according to a Jan. 8 statement from the service. "We, as a service, employ rules, regulations and operational risk management regimens that, when properly followed, help mitigate mission risk. Although the crew [involved in the crash] was comprised of dedicated Coast Guardsmen, failure to follow well established Coast Guard regulations, policies and procedures, combined with complacency in the planning and conduct of the flight and exacerbated by errors in judgment, were the primary contributing factors in this mishap."
One retired captain has asked the service not to make an example out of Leone and to focus instead on other problems surrounding the crash.
"Someone came up with the idea that if we really hang someone, then all the others will toe the line and be more careful," said Bernie Hoyland, who served in the Coast Guard for 30 years as an aviator.
Though Hoyland has never met Leone, he took an active role in promoting his case after the Article 32 hearing and spread the word via email. He wrote an open letter to many active-duty and retired aviators in November that expressed his displeasure with the safety culture of the Coast Guard and a letter to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo — head of District 17, where Leone served at the time of the crash — in December 2011 detailing his findings in the case.
Leone's attorney, John Smith, is calling for the Coast Guard to take some responsibility for not properly maintaining its wires. He is urging Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John Currier to respond to allegations that concerns were raised over the wires in 2007 and 2008. At that time, Currier commanded District 13, where the wires were located.
Navy Times requested an interview with Currier for this story through public affairs, but only received a prepared statement that did not address whether Currier was aware of concerns about improperly marked wires while he led District 13.
In a July interview with Navy Times, Currier said he's spoken with aviators around the fleet about Leone's story and stressed the message of accountability.
"What we try to do is take a more positive bent to it and actually say, ‘Look, you're charged with leadership of a crew. You're charged with a multimillion-dollar aircraft. We've spent millions of dollars training you,' " Currier said. " ‘You have a mission to do and you have distinct guidelines on how to accomplish that mission.' "
Chance to advance?
Leone's promotion was to take effect Aug. 1. It's been delayed because of a derogatory evaluation placed in his file after he was already recommended for promotion. Smith said Ostebo ordered the crash-related evaluation to be placed in his file, though the Coast Guard could not confirm the nature of the evaluation.
The delay-of-promotion board — made up of three officers of higher rank than the selectee — is rare, according to service spokesman Carlos Diaz, with 18 being held in the last five years. Sixteen of those officers were removed from promotions lists, Diaz said.
The board made its recommendation to Coast Guard headquarters in late November; Commandant Adm. Bob Papp will rule on the matter, and if he doesn't rule in Leone's favor, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will have the final say.
While there is no timeline for a final decision, Diaz said the promotion may not be delayed for more than one year after the original date of promotion without an exception from the secretary.
If Leone is removed from the promotion list, his career in the Coast Guard will likely be over. Leone would get one more look by a promotion board in late spring of this year, Smith said, which could choose to promote him.
"Chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none," Smith said. "It's rare that someone who has been passed over once would otherwise be promoted. In this case, it's not that the job Lt. Leone has now is bad, but it's not one from which many people get promoted."
If Leone, who is currently serving as the Coast Guard military liaison to the Tricare south region, is passed over a second time, he would have a year to leave the Coast Guard, Smith said. More than anything, Leone wants to be at the controls of a Coast Guard aircraft heading out on a mission.
"I have wanted to fly," Leone said. "It's not about me at all. It's the fact that the next person who's floating out there after a mishap knows there's a road out there that can be followed that leads to flying."