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A mother fights for accountability after her daughter died during ROTC training

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The mother of a 19-year-old ROTC cadet killed in a Humvee crash in Idaho last summer has become part of a community of survivors who say there are too many preventable noncombat deaths. Investigators have found a series of broken rules and sloppy oversight. But as Alaska Public Media's Jeremy Hsieh reports, family members are finding few ways to hold the military accountable.

JESSICA SWAN: These are flowers from her funeral.

JEREMY HSIEH, BYLINE: In her living room near Anchorage, Jessica Swan has a table and shelves adorned with artifacts of her daughter's life.

SWAN: This is the knife she carried with her every single day, her handprints from second grade making a butterfly.

HSIEH: In an oversized portrait, Mackenzie Wilson - short-haired, petite and blond in glasses - smiles to the whole room in her blue Air Force ROTC dress uniform. Wilson was one of 19 ROTC cadets on a four-day visit of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho last June. Her mom recalls her last phone call with her daughter.

SWAN: She said safety on base was super sketch. And then she was dead.

HSIEH: An old Humvee she was riding in with two other cadets flipped on a gravel road. The untrained, unsupervised cadets weren't even supposed to be in that Humvee, which was for use only as a target. Manny Vega says Wilson's case fits a pattern.

MANNY VEGA: We have negligent decisions being made. We have toxic leadership that hasn't been put in check.

HSIEH: Vega is a retired Marine and former police investigator. In 2018, his 21-year-old son died shortly after entering boot camp with the Marines. He started the nonprofit Save Our Servicemembers to help families work through the exhausting bureaucracy that can seem to hide what happened to their loved ones. Vega says it also shines a light on a lack of accountability for noncombat military deaths.

VEGA: I'm not daydreaming this. We're not an isolated incident. This is a substantial problem that we have to address.

HSIEH: Humvee rollover accidents are particularly common in the armed forces. Congressional watchdogs have documented thousands of noncombat accidents involving tactical vehicles that have killed and maimed hundreds of service members. In the civilian world, negligence can lead to lawsuits. But Vega says a 1950 Supreme Court decision known as the Feres doctrine basically gives the military legal immunity. He says that makes sense for combat but not for training. Vega says he's been trying to find members of Congress who will champion a legislative fix.

So far, the only person publicly facing any accountability in Wilson's death is another 19-year-old cadet who was behind the wheel. Idaho is prosecuting him for manslaughter. Meanwhile, Mackenzie Wilson's mom doesn't want her daughter's death explained away as just another tragedy.

SWAN: I mean, my goal is accountability. Mackenzie's death was completely preventable - and also awareness. Awareness that teenagers are being killed on American soil - what's being stated to be training accidents.

HSIEH: The Air Force initially suggested Wilson's death was a training accident. It declined an interview on tape for this story, but one Air Force investigator told two officials they're suspected of crimes in connection with the crash. The Air Force said it's committed to applying lessons from the investigation, but eight months after the crash, they have not said if they will take any disciplinary action against their own personnel.

For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Hsieh in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeremy Hsieh, Alaska Public Media