Three-and-a-half years after Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell was killed when the light armored vehicle he was commanding rolled into a ditch during training at Camp Pendleton, California, a provision carrying his name that will mandate data collection on military-operated vehicles became law. Now, his father wants to ensure greater accountability for senior leaders when Marines die in training accidents.
The 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell Safety in Armed Forces Equipment Act, which was rolled into the mammoth fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Joe Biden in December 2022, creates a two-year pilot program for the Army and Marine Corps to assess whether built-in data recorders ― commonly known as black boxes ― will support the safe operation of military vehicles and improve readiness.
By Oct. 1, according to the legislation, the secretaries of the Army and Navy must choose at least one military base “that contains the necessary forces, equipment, and maneuver training ranges to collect data on drivers and military tactical vehicles during training and routine operation at which to carry out the pilot program.”
They must then oversee the installation of data recorders on at least six kinds of commonly operated tactical vehicles, in sufficient quantities, that the data recovered will produce statistically significant results.
While all military aircraft and ships are equipped with a form of data recorder, military ground vehicles are inconsistent in the data they capture and older vehicles are less likely to have recoverable trip information. Military ground vehicles currently don’t record data on tipping, loss of traction or acceleration force, retired Marine Col. Walt Yates said.
According to the law, the vehicles that must be fitted with recorders include: high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles, or Humvees; family of medium tactical vehicles, a class of heavy-duty trucks; medium tactical vehicle replacements, also known as 7-ton trucks; light armored vehicles; and Stryker armored combat vehicles.
The provision also gives the Army and Navy secretaries leeway to add recorders to other kinds of vehicles as they see fit. A to-be-established central database will collect information from the recorders in a way that allows commanders to review trends and make operational improvements.
The service secretaries must submit a report on the pilot program and its findings to the congressional defense committees by Dec. 15, 2024, and an assessment with recommendations on whether the initiative should be expanded and made permanent the following year.
Lt. Conor McDowell’s father, Michael McDowell ― the primary lobbyist for the new pilot program ― told Marine Corps Times he’s pleased with the progress it represents, but isn’t yet done pushing for change.
He’s currently seeking sponsorship, he said, for additional legislation that would create a new position in the office of the secretary of defense to investigate senior officers in the rank of colonel and above who are found to have deficiencies in their safety protocols and resources.
It also would require these senior officers to face a review board for discipline or dismissal if they’re found to have been negligent in the safety-related death or injury of a service member. His proposal would require a paper trail for safety warnings or requests sent up the chain of command, and greater protection from retaliation for junior leaders when they call for a stand-down due to unsafe vehicles or conditions.
The military already conducts investigations into major mishaps and sometimes relieves unit commanding officers as a result of these inquiries, but McDowell feels that accountability doesn’t travel far enough up the chain of command. As a result, he said, leadership decisions that affect troops’ access to safety training can be left out of mishap inquiries.
“If a tragedy occurs, you say, ‘Wait a minute, that was asked for. Why was the money not provided?’” he said.
The investigation into the mishap that took Lt. Conor McDowell’s life exonerated the young officer; it found that the tall grasses in the training area kept the Marines from seeing the steep ravine drop-offs that caused the tragedy.
In his advocacy for mishap data collection and safety reforms, Michael McDowell has found an ally close to the Marine Corps: Yates, a retired colonel and the service’s former program manager for training systems.
Yates said the training provided to military vehicle drivers has long been a subject of concern. In a LinkedIn post celebrating the passage of the new pilot program, he cited a 2006 internal Marine Corps study that highlighted “terrible” shortfalls in driver training.
“The high back vehicles are dangerous,” the report’s authors wrote. “The enemy has caused us to pile all this armor on there by blowing us up and it’s caused deaths in other ways when you’re conducting distributed operations all over the battlefield like we were.”
Yates said the military has long found it easier to invest in combat and lethality training than in safety training for routine operations, like driving. He cited the most recent deadly military vehicle mishap as evidence that training gaps still exist.
In January 2022, two Marines were killed and 17 more injured when a 7-ton truck rolled over while making a fast right turn outside Camp Lejeune’s Stone Bay in North Carolina. The 19-year-old Marine driver now faces charges including misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.
“That’s not the vehicle failing,” Yates said, “But it was operating in an unsafe manner. We just have not given equal, or anywhere close to equal, emphasis to that type of training.”
A total of 3,753 noncombat Army and Marine Corps tactical vehicle mishaps had occurred between 2010–2019, resulting in the deaths of 123 troops, a 2021 Government Accountability Office report found.
Yates said the black box program will help the services identify troops who routinely take risks or drive outside of established parameters, allowing them to be pulled aside for discipline or remedial training. It also will allow leaders to better understand the conditions under which mishaps are most likely to occur and adapt training or advocate for safety features that prevent future accidents.
For Michael McDowell, it’s a fitting tribute to his son, who he said was deeply committed to caring for his Marines.
“I think [Conor’s] legacy is assured,” he said. “And I’m very proud of that ― he would have wanted it.”
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.