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'Desert Sun' Probes Marine Deaths On Highway Near Calif. Base

Apr 4, 2014
Originally published on April 4, 2014 6:29 am

Since 2007, more Marines from the Twentynine Palms Marine base in California have died in the U.S. than in the war-torn Middle East. Steve Inskeep talks to reporter Brett Kelman of The Desert Sun.

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Next, we have a glimpse of life and death at a Marine base in Southern California. The base is 29 Palms in the Mojave Desert. It is exceedingly remote, which makes it easier for Marines to train for war. But to get in and out of 29 Palm, Marines have to drive an open desert highway. And that highway is one of the places some American veterans have died.

Since 2007, 64 Marines from 29 Palms were killed in non-hostile situations -such as car crashes, as well as other causes, such as suicide. Fewer than 64 died at war during that same time. The numbers were compiled by the Palm Springs Desert Sun, whose reporters include Brett Kelman.

BRETT KELMAN: Our story opens with this crash that killed a young man, Corporal Donald Fowler. He had been deployed to Iraq three times. He had a Purple Heart. He had survived some of the worst places a young man could go. And February 2011 him and his buddy were driving through the desert, coming back from stargazing out in the emptiness, and they went around a curve in a Mustang going 90 miles an hour. The car rolled through the desert, I think, like, 500 feet, and when it finally stopped, Donald Fowler was dead.

INSKEEP: I think you wrote that alcohol was involved.

KELMAN: It was. While they were out in the desert, Donald had a couple of beers. But, I mean, he had been drinking but he wasn't drunk.

INSKEEP: I want to get a sense of what you're asserting here, because you have 64 deaths over a period of several years among several thousand Marines. If you took any group of people, some of them would die in car accidents or of illnesses or other things. Are asserting there's something about the base, something about the stresses of coming home from war, something special to the Marines that is going wrong here?

KELMAN: Twenty-nine Palms, to me, seems like an especially dangerous combination of a lot of different things. One: you have this isolation in an environment that encourages people to drive fast; two: it's a bunch of young people in an area where there's really not much to do, which encourages them to travel further during their off-hours; three: because of the lack of things to do, I feel like there is a larger issue with alcohol at the base. I think the fourth one is where the military is now. We have millions of troops transitioning back from a decade of war, and what that's created is hundreds of thousands of people who are starting to lose their purpose and could be coping with the incredible implications of post-traumatic stress disorder.

INSKEEP: When you talked with the Marines about your findings, the sheer number of people who'd been killed in these kinds of incidents and accidents, did they bring up PTSD as a possible cause?

KELMAN: They did not. I was very disappointed that during our reporting of this series we never got a chance to speak to the commanding general of the 29 Palms Base. A lot of the issues we had discussed, the Marine Corps and the base were aware of individually, but I don't think they had this grand tally that we put together for our reporting. From the outside, 29 Palms looks like one facility. You go inside and it would be the Marines. But the reality is inside the base walls it's compartmentalized by battalions and they don't necessarily keep this count on each other.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that there was no one at the base who said, you know, we're working on post-traumatic stress; we're aware that this is an issue?

KELMAN: They were always working on it, but I don't know if they have a full measure of the cost of lives there have been at that base.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we should mention there are a lot of different manifestations of post-traumatic stress, but some could include people self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, engaging in risky behavior and ending up with a variety of problems that I suppose might be linked to a car accident at some point in their lives.

KELMAN: PTSD can manifest in so many ways and maybe it creates a feeling of invincibility that can encourage that kind of reckless behavior. Maybe it manifests are alcohol or drug abuse. It's hard to factor how many of these deaths it's really been a part of, but it seems to me, from all the reporting that we've done, that it is an underlying source of concern in a large number of the deaths that we've seen at 29 Palms.

INSKEEP: Brett Kelman of the Palms Springs Desert Sun. Thanks very much.

KELMAN: Thank you very much for the time.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.