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Documents: LAV seat glitch caused Marine's Afghanistan death

Marines tell investigators LAV hydraulic issue was widespread

May. 8, 2013 - 12:47PM   |  
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Lance Cpl. John Cagle ()

Marines tell investigators hydraulic issue was widespread

Marines tell investigators hydraulic issue was widespread

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Lance Cpl. John Cagle had returned from a mounted combat patrol in Afghanistan when he and his fellow Marines began something entirely routine: a post-operation check of their Light Armored Vehicle.

He didn’t survive it.

Cagle, 19, was killed Sept. 28, 2011, on a base in Helmand province’s Reg-e Khanashin district after a hydraulically operated seat rose rapidly, squashing his throat between the seat-back and the roof of the vehicle, a Marine Corps investigation found.

Other Marines found Cagle with a “deep indentation, one inch by one inch, on the back of his neck,” according to documents released to Marine Corps Times through the Freedom of Information Act. His airway appeared crushed or broken, the documents said.

Although the investigation concluded about a month after Cagle’s death, the findings weren’t released to media until recently. After Cagle’s accident, 21 other Marines with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., told investigators they had seen LAV seats rise quickly and unexpectedly. In some cases, trapped Marines could reach a lever to disengage the seat; in others they had to yell for help, according to witness statements released with the report.

One lance corporal with Charlie Company, 2nd LAR, described an incident prior to Cagle’s death in which he was trapped by the neck between the back of a seat and the roof of a vehicle.

“I knew I was in danger of getting caught in the rapidly rising seat, so I jumped back to get out of the way,” the Marine told investigators. “Unfortunately, I was too slow and my neck was caught against the ceiling by the seat-back.”

The Marine was freed by a sergeant in his unit.

Another lance corporal was trapped by a driver’s seat during predeployment training early in 2011 at Twentynine Palms, Calif. The seat elevated when he put weight on it while crawling through the vehicle, he said.

“My torso became pinned between the roof of the vehicle and the seat-back around my stomach,” he told investigators.

His breathing was unaffected, and he could reach the seat control, but knew the incident could have been more serious.

“If I had been a few inches further back,” he said, “I would have been trapped by the chest or neck.”

A deadly problem

Cagle’s accident occurred within months of new seats being installed in the vehicle in January 2011, the investigation found. They were part of a series of upgrades to LAVs as thousands of Marines deployed to Afghanistan beginning in 2008. Bench seating was replaced with new blast-resistant seats to help protect against improvised explosive devices.

The seats were significantly larger, their seat-backs nearly reaching the ceiling of the vehicles when fully elevated. After the investigation into Cagle’s death, officials recommended introducing training to make sure Marines were aware of the dangers, researching whether changes to the driver’s seat were needed, adding an emergency switch to the driver’s compartment, and including a locking mechanism on the seat’s pneumatic lever to prevent it from accidentally rising.

Investigators also said Marines should adhere to existing regulations that called for them to use a pin that locks the height of their seats in place after adjusting them for comfort, and for the seat-back to be kept all the way down.

The LAV program is overseen by officials at Marine Corps Systems Command, out of Quantico, Va. Although multiple Marines told investigators they’d had problems with the seats, officials with Program Manager-LAV didn’t hear about them until after Cagle’s death, said Barb Hamby, a MARCORSYSOM spokeswoman.

The ballistic seats were initially installed to support in-theater operations, and removed when the vehicles were brought back to the U.S., Hamby said. About 375 seats were installed in 284 LAVs.

“The seats are not defective,” Hamby said. “To address this incident, PM-LAV has fielded a shield to the lever controls to prevent accidental actuation of the seat mechanism.”

Rescue attempt

The investigation’s report describes a frantic attempt to save Cagle’s life. He had just returned from a trip to neighboring patrol bases, and was inside a logistics variant of the LAV when the incident occurred, it said.

At about 3:20 p.m., Cagle and the drivers of the other three LAVs in the patrol began post-operation checks on their vehicles while a first lieutenant conducted a post-patrol brief less than 50 feet away, the report said. Cagle was found about 3:45 p.m., after a fellow lance corporal climbed on top of the LAV.

The Marine called for a corpsman, who entered the LAV through the commander’s hatch and found Cagle pale and blue. Four Marines pulled him out of the vehicle, moved him to a stretcher four minutes after he was found and began performing CPR and other forms of emergency medicine, and medically evacuated him from the base by helicopter at 4:14 p.m., about 30 minutes after he was discovered, the investigation found. He was pronounced dead in a shock-trauma platoon emergency room at 4:31 p.m.

Cagle’s mother, Carolyn, told FOX-5 TV in Atlanta last May that she was aware that her son had died in an unusual accident.

“The hydraulics system malfunctioned and it caused John to be thrown into the ceiling of the LAV and his neck was twisted and he died instantly,” she said.

Cagle’s mother said her son came from a family with a rich military history.

“We come from a military family,” she said, “but John was the only one who did not return.”■

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