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SEAL Trainee's Medical History Questioned After Drowning

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide

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    NEWSLETTERS

    U.S. Navy
    Seaman James Derek Lovelace, 21, died during basic underwater demolition/SEAL training, better known as BUD/S.

    The drowning of a sailor who was repeatedly pushed underwater by an instructor during Navy SEAL basic training raises a host of questions, beginning perhaps with this: Why would a highly elite unit made up of some of the toughest, fittest warriors ever to wear a uniform take someone with an enlarged heart and maybe asthma or allergies?

    An enlarged heart would not have shown up in the medical exams that sailors are routinely subjected to before they are accepted for SEAL basic training, said Dr. Kirk Parsley, a former SEAL who also served as the Navy doctor for West Coast SEALs until 2013.

    Moreover, doctors say it is not uncommon for athletes to develop an enlarged heart from rigorous exercise, and the condition is usually benign, though there is a genetic type of heart enlargement that is hard to distinguish from "athlete's heart" and can be fatal.

    The San Diego County medical examiner called Seaman James Derek Lovelace's enlarged heart a contributing factor to his drowning death May 6 during a pool exercise in Coronado, California, near San Diego. It was unclear from the autopsy report whether Lovelace's condition was the more dangerous type.

    Sean Rayford/Getty Images

    The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide after finding that the 21-year-old from Crestview, Florida, had been dunked at least twice by an instructor while struggling to tread water in full gear.

    The autopsy also discovered Lovelace had an abnormal coronary artery that the medical examiner noted has been associated with sudden cardiac death, especially in athletes.

    Lovelace would have undergone a medical exam and physical fitness test before being allowed to take part in SEAL basic training, a six-month program so grueling that 75 percent of candidates drop out by the end of the first month.

    It's unclear from the autopsy report how much Lovelace's heart abnormalities contributed to his death. But Parsley said the stress of being repeatedly splashed and dunked could have exacerbated his problem.

    "I think it's an unfortunate occurrence that is rare enough that I don't think the Navy could have done anything about it," the doctor said. "You could add advanced imagery techniques, like an MRI or CAT scan, but then if you do that, where do you stop? Do you check the liver, the brain, the heart? I think they do a very thorough job and many people who would be exceptional special warfare operators never get the chance because the screening is so stringent."

    Dr. Byron Smith, a retired Army doctor and emergency room physician, agreed the heart problems would not have showed up in the medical screenings, but he said there were other red flags: Lovelace had a prior electrocardiogram that found an abnormal heart rate, and he got a prescription more than a year ago for Singulair, which is used to treat asthma and allergies — two conditions the Navy lists as reasons for disqualifying a sailor for SEAL training.

    "Nobody should be on medication at that age who goes into the SEALs," Smith said. "That alone should have disqualified him."

    Parsley said he believes Lovelace's prescription for Singulair was probably for allergies, since no inhaler was listed in the autopsy report.

    The medical examiner's office declined to be interviewed, and Lovelace's family could not be reached for comment. Calls to a Florida phone number under Lovelace's father's name went unanswered.

    Sailors who want to become SEAL candidates must be able to pass a test that includes swimming 500 yards in 12 ½ minutes, doing 50 push-ups in two minutes and completing 50 curl-ups in two minutes. During basic training, they run, climb, swim in frigid waters and perform other drills, often on little or no sleep.

    The death raises questions about the safety of the strenuous training, which some argue is necessary to create warriors with missions like the one that took down Osama bin Laden.

    No charges have been brought against the unidentified instructor, who has been put on administrative duty while the military investigates.