TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. – A Southern California Marine base has suffered more non-hostile deaths from car crashes and suicides in the last seven years than in war zones, a newspaper investigation showed on Monday.
Sixty service members from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms have died in the Middle East since 2007, while 64 have died on American soil, the Desert Sun reported (http://bit.ly/1demSW9).
An investigation by the newspaper found 28 Marines died in off-duty vehicle crashes while stationed at the base about an hour's drive from Palm Springs. A dozen Marines died on Highway 62, a 151-mile route that runs from the Coachella Valley to the Arizona border and takes Marines from the base to the nearest hub for dining, nightlife and shopping.
"Any civilian that gets killed is still just as much of a tragedy, but just to have to go to war and then come back and die at home during peacetime," said Curtis Kolb, a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy who has investigated many of the crashes, "it just kind of puts it on a different level of tragic situation."
Extreme speed was listed as a factor in more than half those crashes, and more than a third of the vehicle deaths involved alcohol, according to the newspaper.
Studies have shown Marines are more likely to die in a vehicle crash after recently returning from a deployment. The Center for Naval Analyses found that Marines who had been back from a deployment for three to six months were 60 percent more at risk of dying in a vehicle accident.
The base in Twentynine Palms has reduced the risk of vehicle fatalities by requiring Marines to take defensive driver training. But it still has one of the highest fatal crash rates in the Marine Corps. While off-duty fatal vehicle accidents have been cut in half in the overall Marine Corps since 2007, they have held steady at Twentynine Palms, the newspaper reported.
"Accidents are an unacceptable risk to mission accomplishment. It degrades our effectiveness as a training installation and robs us of our most precious resource — our people," said Capt. Justin Smith, a base spokesman.
At the base, Marines 25 or younger or considered high-risk drivers are required to complete driver training, as are Marines who own a motorcycle.
One of the challenges, Kolb said, is that often the Marines — who may face near-death situations abroad — doubt anything will happen to them driving on local roads.
Marine Sgt. Steven Afalla acknowledged that many Marines dismiss the driving safety briefings, especially after returning from deployment. Afalla had recently returned from Afghanistan in February 2011 when the yellow Ford Mustang in which he was traveling with his friend Cpl. Donald Fowler crashed in the desert off Highway 62, killing Fowler.
"I was like, 'I've been in the war. I don't need to listen to you people," Afalla said. "You know what I mean? 'I know how to keep myself alive. Thank you. Thank you for the advice.'"
Lance Cpl. Joel Cohoe said he and his fellow Marines often went out to Palm Springs or elsewhere and didn't designate a sober driver, knowing full well the risks.
"I can honestly say I felt pretty invincible," Cohoe said. "I had my brothers to the left and right of me. I felt safe, like nothing could happen."
In November 2010, Cohoe was driving back to the base after a day of drinking and playing pool with friends when he collided with fellow Marine Cpl. Omar Salazar, who was riding his motorcycle.
Salazar was flung from the bike and killed. Cohoe pleaded guilty to driving under the influence causing bodily injury and is now serving a five-year sentence at a minimum security facility.
"Before all this went down, I took my freedom for granted," Cohoe said. "I didn't necessarily know what I had until I lost it all."