Marines: Islam drowned during training exercise

Jun. 03, 2014 @ 04:47 PM

The Islam family is hoping to bring positive and lasting changes from the loss of their son, Josh Islam. 

Pfc. Josh Islam died in January during reconnaissance Marine training in California. Islam, 18, died in the pool during the final event in the basic reconnaissance swim screener. The death was ruled an accidental drowning in the report, released recently. 

Islam’s family set up the Joshua19Foundation in honor of their story. The idea came from the Bible verse Joshua 1:9. Islam’s mother highlighted the verse for him in a Bible she gave him when he was sent to boot camp. 

She did not tell him she highlighted the verse, but weeks later Islam discovered it when a friend received a letter from his mother telling him to look up the verse. 

The verse reads “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” in the New International Version translation.

When Islam and his friend graduated from boot camp, they received dog tags with the verse engraved on them as a graduation present. 

“When Josh died in January, we said, you know, we’ve got to have something for these kids to kind of rally around and hold on to,” James Islam, his father, said. 

Islam had been on the state champion baseball team at Weddington High School and active in many school and community events.

They ordered about 500 of them for the kids at Weddington High School, baseball players, family and friends of Josh’s. 

After that, the family decided to perpetuate it.

“Rather just be stuck in depression, misery ... let’s make this our thing where we try to make something good come out of this,” Islam said in an interview. “Since there, there’s been a lot more significance to it.” 

The foundation will donate to causes that were important to Pfc. Islam, including Hometown Heroes, ROTC and youth baseball. 

Islam, one of seven children, had a younger brother who was treated for cancer. During that time, many people helped the family, including Hometown Heroes, the Wesley Chapel Weddington Athletic Association and others. 

The Islam family requested donations to the organization in lieu of flowers. 

Islam said they are raising money to support these organizations and “basically invest in kids and move in a positive direction, rather than get mired in all the negative feelings.”

According to the report released by the U.S. Marine Corps, the swim screener Islam was participating in consisted of five events: a 500-meter swim, a 25-meter underwater swim, rifle retrieval from a depth of 15 feet, a 25-meter rifle town and tower entry with a 30-minute water tread. It was during the last event where Islam began to struggle. According to the report he was performing “in what appeared to be a physically diminished state.” 

The report stated that in that state he inhaled enough water to drown moments after his last submersion. 

The report stated that there were appropriate swimmer to instructor ratio requirements and designated safety supervisors during the event. 

“However, the instructors, who are all well-qualified and experienced water survival instructors, lacked specific training in Instinctive Drowning Response,” the report read. “As a result, the instructors struggled to successfully walk the line between encouraging and teaching Private First Class Islam to overcome his psychological and technical limitations and recognizing when he was physically incapable of safely conducting the training.” 

According to the findings of fact, the students may not have understood that failing or dropping on request from the basic reconnaissance screener would not have resulted in them being removed from the program. 

“On this day, the swim screener is not a pass/fail requirement and is used solely to assess the Marines’ initial swim capabilities and place them in swim ability groups,” the report read. 

According to the report, Islam was ordered to exit the pool and report to the duty corpsman. He exited the pool without assistance and an oxygen-saturation test showed he had normal oxygen saturation. After three or four minutes, Islam asked to re-enter the pool and was given permission. After two or three minutes, Islam had difficulty again treading water, and his went head went about two to three inches below water two or three times for one to two seconds apiece, according to the investigation. 

Islam was told that he would be pulled from the pool if he went underwater again, and he was pulled to the side of the pool by the safety swimmer when he went underwater again. After being assisted to the edge, he went unconscious. 

He was put into the recovery position and given oxygen. CPR was also administered until paramedics arrived on the scene and began “advanced life support procedures.” He was pronounced dead at the scene. 

The investigating officer determined that Islam’s death occurred while in the line of duty and not due to his own misconduct. 

“While I concur with opinion 4 that Private First Class Islam should not have been allowed to re-enter the water after he was removed the first time, I believe this opinion is made with the benefit of hindsight,” the report read. The name of the author has been redacted. 

The report stated that Islam was one of the weaker swimmers in the class according to witnesses, though this is something that James Islam, his father, disagrees with. 

Islam said he would not say (Pfc. Islam) was Michael Phelps, but he was a “well above-average swimmer to a pretty strong swimmer.” He said that all indications are at some point (Pfc. Islam) did inhale water, and “Any swimmer, regardless of their competency, their ability, will be compromised.”

“It’s true that he drowned, but it wasn’t from being a weak swimmer,” Islam said. He said it was “frustrating” to read about his son’s swimming ability. 

“That just wasn’t the case, he was at the end of a very long day,” he said. “Somehow his ability was compromised.” 

The report stated that Pfc. Islam was struggling to some extent from the start of the tread water event. 

“It is quite evident that Private First Class Islam was committed to succeeding in this training and to ultimately become a Reconnaissance Marine,” the report reads. “He, like many other volunteer candidates to this elite program, was a motivated self-started with a drive and determination to complete each task successfully and not quit. Unfortunately, these same character traits potentially masked the marked indicators of an active drowning.” 

The report said that the Marine Corps Water Survival Training Program in general and the Marine Combat Instruct of Water Survival course in particular have not adequately trained instructors on identification of the subtle differences between a distressed swimmer and active drowning. 

The report also said that the program did not clearly define the difference between a swim “screener” and a swim “assessment.” 

James Islam said that the point of the screener was not to weed out weak swimmers but to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals about the undergo the training and a tragedy happened. 

“It’s really regrettable,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen, they weren’t trying to weed people out.” 

Islam said they are not angry or bitter at the Marine Corps.

“I’m not angry or bitter at the individuals who were (there), they were being human beings and doing the best they could under the circumstances,” he said. “We’re not angry or bitter at the Marine Corps.

“It’s very important to us not to tarnish the reputation and the sacrifices that other people have made,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are serving now, giving it all they have ... (we are) very interested in preserving the memory and the sacrifices that so many others have made,” Islam said. 

There are several other connections to the military in the family, with family members serving or having served in the Air Force, Navy and Army. 

“We have a very patriotic family,” Islam said. “We feel a strong kinship with our armed forces.” 

Islam remembered his son dreaming about becoming a reconnaissance Marine as far back as ninth grade. 

“He had the brains to go to college, but he said, you know, I want to serve my country first,” Islam said. “That sounded just like him. He was an athlete and he really wanted the physical challenge ... and he wanted to serve our country.” 

“That was his dream and his passion,” he said. “He was raised to identify what his passion was and to give it 110 percent.”

Islam said that is the message they hope to continue to send to young people through the foundation, to identify their passion and give it everything they have. 

“We celebrate what he has accomplished and he made a positive impact,” Islam said. “Some people, they may live to be 80 or 90 years old and not make such an impact as Josh has in 19 years.” 

“We feel intense pride that we raised a son that was willing to give his life for his country,” Islam said.