Lee Mirecki incident

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Lee Mirecki was a 19-year-old United States Navy Airman Recruit who was killed during a military training exercise on March 2, 1988. His death became a cause célèbre among those campaigning against bullying in military training regimes. As a result of his death a number of procedures and guidelines within the Navy's training programs were changed. He is cited by name in the Navy documentation supporting these changes.

Background[edit]

Mirecki, from Appleton, Wisconsin, joined the Navy in 1987. At the time of his death he was training to become an Aviation Anti-Submarine Warfare Operator (AW) Rescue Swimmer, despite a childhood fear of being under water. Why someone that has a fear of being underwater would ever volunteer for such a specialty that is the equivalent of an elite lifeguard to save downed pilots in the Navy was never questioned. Rescue Swimmer School (RSS) was a compulsory part of the training for this role. This demanding training was developed to prepare recruits for retrieving downed aircraft carrier-based airmen under wartime conditions. Recruits must be in peak physical condition, and the course has a 50% attrition rate. The basic swimming skills of distance and time are tested while the student goes through Recruit Training (boot camp) and those that fail lose their guaranteed job skill training and go to the naval fleet as "Apprentices" with no technical jobs skills.

As part of the RSS program, recruits must successfully complete a drill known as sharks and daisies. In this drill, students swim in a circle with their hands behind their backs, equipped with flippers but no safety apparatus. Instructors take a (head) hold on the student and attempt to simulate panicking victims in need of rescue. A student failing to perform the release maneuver correctly is given additional instruction.

RSS allowed for "drop on request" (DOR), which Mirecki had already done once, in February 1988, following failure to complete the "sharks and daisies" drill. He underwent a series of physical and psychological exams and was placed on "medical hold." It is alleged that pressure from RSS instructors was behind his decision to return to the RSS program when he did. The RSS instructors may have reminded Mirecki that his DOR request would cost him his technical skill training and send him to the naval fleet as an undersigned seaman assigned to the ship's deck force.

His death by drowning occurred during this drill.

Details of Mirecki's death[edit]

According to reports, at least two of the instructors on duty that day were aware of Mirecki's earlier problem with the drill. Once again, Mirecki had difficulty with the drill and requested that he be dropped from the course and not be forced to re-enter the pool. Instead of honoring his request, the instructors reportedly seized him and forced him back into the water, then began "smurfing" him (holding him under the water) until he lost consciousness. At this time, other recruits were commanded to line up, turn their backs and sing the national anthem.

Mirecki died from a heart arrhythmia, ventricular fibrillation, secondary to hypoxia, consistent with a death by drowning.

US Navy response[edit]

The Navy did not begin an investigation until a reporter from the Pensacola News Journal received an anonymous tip with information and reason to investigate the incident. When the management of the newspaper refused to publish the reporter's account, the reporter quit her job at the newspaper. The family then contacted members of Congress and the press. After two months of media, family, Congressional pressure, the Navy began an investigation, determined that there was a case to answer, and disciplined both the primary instructor involved and the school's Officer In Charge. However, there were no court martials.

Legal actions[edit]

On January 25, 1990, Mirecki's mother, Elaine Kitowski, as personal representative of her son's estate, filed a wrongful death action under the Federal Tort Claims Act in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The court dismissed the suit and held that the claim was barred under the FTCA. Kitowski appealed; on May 29, 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court's dismissal.[1]

Aftermath[edit]

The Mirecki case resulted in increased safety awareness during training in several Navy training programs. The Officer-In-Charge of the RSS and the primary instructor involved in the incident were reportedly[citation needed] disciplined within the Navy judicial system.

See also[edit]

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