For Army ‘VIPs,’ safety rules were just suggestions

Special rules for special people.

That mentality – seen everywhere from professional sports to Hollywood’s (“Don’t you know who I am?”) A list – apparently led to the senseless death of a highly respected Army officer in a parachute accident last year.

In a special report made possible by a Freedom of Information request, The News Tribune’s Adam Ashton relates how a “VIP culture” of special treatment for senior officers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, contributed to a cascade of mistakes leading up to Col. Darron Wright’s death.

Wright, who had been a brigade deputy commander at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and led the last Stryker combat patrol out of Iraq, was jumping with a group of other high-ranking officers when the accident occurred. Although Wright was a veteran parachutist who had made more than 60 jumps, an Army investigation found that he had not been sufficiently trained on the new, maneuverable MC-6 chute requested by two other officers in the jump group.

Wright’s “VIP” jump group did not attend a mandatory morning safety briefing on the day of the jump; apparently, “mandatory” was just a suggestion for high-ranking officers at Fort Bragg. Plus, Wright shouldn’t even have been allowed on the flight because his certification for refresher jump training had expired. He and the other officers also failed to get the special permission needed to use the MC-6 chutes.

Perhaps the most serious snafu: The change in chute type to be used was not reflected in the official mission plan. That was important because the recommended jump altitude for the MC-6 is 200 feet higher than for the standard parachute. But the Army officers didn’t tell the Air Force C-130 crew that a change in altitude was necessary.

Had the jump taken place at the higher altitude, Wright might have survived. He opened his reserve chute at 40 feet above ground; 200 extra feet could have been the difference between life and death.

The investigation into the accident has led to a recommended list of 25 policy changes, and an officer has been appointed to ensure those steps are taken. The findings rightly had the commander of the Army’s XVIII Airborne seething. “This VIP crap stops now,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson.

Why was that “crap” tolerated in the first place? Surely the brass was aware it was going on, otherwise the jump group would not have so blithely ignored the rules. You know, the ones that only apply to non-VIPs.