In the aftermath of a parachute accident that killed a former Joint Base Lewis-McChord colonel, the harshest punishment fell on the lowest-ranking of six soldiers the Army held accountable for his death.
That detail was revealed in a new Army Inspector General report into the September 2013 death of Col. Darron Wright at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno commissioned the latest report to determine whether Fort Bragg had taken steps to eradicate a “VIP culture” that allowed Wright on a paratrooper training mission for which he was not prepared. It was Wright’s first parachute jump in four years.
The three-star general who authored the IG report wrote that the discipline handed out after the accident in some ways reinforced perceptions that the Army punishes lower-ranking soldiers more severely than their superiors. He wrote that he has noticed similar complaints in recent investigations around the Army, particularly ones involving sexual harassment and assault cases.
“The perception of disparity in punishment between senior leaders and junior soldiers is a commonly held perception noted during many IG inspections,” wrote Lt. Gen. David Quantock.
He said a “lack of transparency and failure to keep the unit informed are the principal contributors” to this perception.
The Army has not launched a broader review into “VIP culture,” an Army spokeswoman said.
Wright’s death stunned the Army because he was a well-known career soldier who had just published a memoir about his three deployments to the Iraq War in the year before his accident.
Wright, 45, served at JBLM from 2009-13, helping to lead a Stryker brigade in Iraq and later holding staff positions with the 7th Infantry Division and I Corps. A room in the 7th Infantry Division headquarters is dedicated to him.
Odierno requested the latest IG report in August two weeks after The News Tribune published a special report on a series of administrative mistakes that led to Wright’s fatal jump. The Army report was completed on Feb. 4 and released to Wright’s family and this newspaper in late March.
Auditors interviewed about 300 soldiers at Fort Bragg for their investigation. They found that a majority of the soldiers who supervise paratrooper safety as jumpmasters said “there is preferential treatment based on rank and position.”
A quarter of them told auditors they had made changes to a flight plan to accommodate “senior leaders who arrive late.”
And almost half of the 22 senior noncommissioned officers surveyed said that Army “VIPs” do not “always participate in required training before airborne operations.”
According to the report, Fort Bragg plans to reverse those potentially dangerous attitudes by:
• Eliminating an abbreviated paratrooper refresher course that had been offered to high-ranking soldiers. Instead, they’ll be required to take the same safety class all other paratroopers are required to take.
• Gathering enlisted jumpmasters for regular meetings to remind them they’re responsible for removing troops of any rank from flights if they pose a safety risk for the group.
• Forbidding paratrooper training missions to use more than one kind of a parachute. On Wright’s flight, soldiers used two different models, which led to confusion among participants.
Six soldiers were punished for mistakes leading up to Wright’s death. The most severe penalty fell on the lowest-ranking soldier, who lost his assignment as the noncommissioned officer in charge of parachute packing in a unit that specializes in that task.
By contrast, two colonels who missed a safety briefing with Wright on the morning of the jump and requested late changes to their jump plan received written reprimands but kept their positions. (Letters of reprimand for senior officers can be a form of serious discipline because the letters can prevent promotions, which can prematurely end military careers.)
Quantock, who wrote the IG report, did not offer an opinion about whether the penalties were appropriate.
The one-star general who initially investigated Wright’s death wrote that the accident revealed a “VIP culture” that “exempts high-ranking individuals from institutionalized procedures that apply to the rest of the airborne population.”
A key moment took place four days before Wright’s fatal jump, when two fellow senior officers in the XVIII Airborne Corps determined they and three others should use a steerable parachute instead of the standard variety used by most conventional soldiers at Fort Bragg.
The change was not reflected on the official mission plan. It also meant that Wright was jumping with a steerable parachute for the first time.
Among other mistakes, the plane was flying below the recommended altitude the Army uses for that kind of parachute. Wright and two fellow colonels also missed a morning rehearsal with their jump team.
“Darron should never have been on that plane,” said his widow, Wendy Wright, an Army major who had a son with him when they lived in DuPont during his assignment at JBLM.
In response to written questions, an XVIII Airborne Corps spokeswoman said “we see this as part of a larger issue about a series of steps and procedures not being properly followed, contributing to the unfortunate death of Col. Wright.”
But Wendy Wright saw a sign of acceptance for Fort Bragg’s “VIP culture” in the routine that her husband and two of his peers followed the morning of the jump.
Rather than join their full team for a rehearsal with their flight’s jumpmaster, they practiced at the corps headquarters.
Afterward, a colonel who was one of the senior-ranking jumpers on the flight that day was called to a meeting with the corps’ commanding general. That meeting kept the colonel from joining the team on the flight line, as would be expected of a junior-ranking soldier on a jump day.
“Is this a normal practice to have your officers attend meetings in the morning when they should be at training?” Wendy Wright asked. “We’re supposed to have one standard for training.”
The XVIII Airborne spokeswoman did not say directly whether the colonel should have had someone else meet with the commander in his place.
“No meeting would prevent an individual from attending the required pre-jump training,” Maj. Crystal Boring said. “It is common for alternates to attend meetings and other events to ensure all jumpers receive the proper training, to standard.”