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U.S. military under fire for gun safety breaches on Okinawa

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Special To The Japan Times

A series of incidents — including the theft of an M16 in 2014 and numerous attempts to board civilian aircraft carrying live ammunition this year — have raised concerns the U.S. military on Okinawa is failing to securely manage its weapons in the prefecture.

Documents obtained from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act reveal how a marine, believed to be a chief warrant officer three (third rank), stole an automatic rifle and bullets, barricaded himself within his home and threatened to kill himself and possibly a fellow service member.

The documents catalog a series of security failures that enabled the marine to commit the act, such as errors at the armory and suggestions that past mental problems had been ignored by senior officers. The perpetrator received a relatively light punishment for his actions: a written warning and a pay cut.

According to NCIS reports, on the morning of Oct. 30, 2014, the marine drove to Camp Hansen, Kin Town. At the installation’s shooting range, he stole 10 rounds of M16 ammunition from a technician’s table. Although U.S. Marine Corps policy requires marines leaving the range to be checked with a pat-down and handheld metal detector, it seems no such precautions were taken.

After stealing the ammunition, the marine drove to the armory at Camp Foster, central Okinawa. He explained to the armorer that he wanted an M16 rifle so he could practice dry-firing it for a shooting tournament. According to the report, the marine “should not have had a rifle issued to him,” but, because of his relatively high rank, he was given one.

At the same time, the marine also requested a magazine clip that would have enabled him to fire several bullets consecutively. However, this request was denied when he refused to hand over his military identification card.

With the rifle and ammunition, the marine then drove off-base and through a civilian neighborhood to nearby Camp Lester. There he entered his house and locked himself in one of the bathrooms. At 8:40 a.m. he telephoned a colleague and explained he was armed and suggested he was about to kill himself. The colleague alerted the military police and drove to the home of the marine.

Upon arrival, the marine warned his colleague he might get hurt if he tried to enter the bathroom. Reports from the NCIS investigators describe this as a threat to shoot the colleague, but according to a later statement from the colleague himself, it might have meant the M16 could accidentally discharge if the colleague attempted to disarm him.

Following the arrival of the military police, NCIS and negotiators, the marine surrendered at 12:54 p.m. without any shots being fired. The rifle and 10 rounds of ammunition were recovered from the scene.

After his arrest, the marine explained he hadn’t committed suicide because he didn’t have a magazine. He said he wanted to fire a “three-round burst” to ensure he killed himself. The reports also suggest he had swallowed a number of unidentified pills.

According to the NCIS documents, for the next two weeks the marine was held at the mental health clinic of the United States Navy Hospital, Camp Foster. On Feb. 26, 2015, he was tried under a nonjudicial punishment hearing, which, unlike a court martial, is usually reserved for minor offenses. At the trial, he pled guilty to several violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and received a 50 percent pay cut for two months and a letter of reprimand.

Asked why the marine had been handed a relatively lenient punishment, John Severns, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for U.S. Forces Japan replied by email, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on administrative or nonjudicial punishments.”

In response to an inquiry about the security failings that allowed the marine to steal the M16 and ammunition, Severns wrote, “U.S. forces have robust measures in place to ensure that weapons are properly controlled and accounted for. We routinely review our procedures in light of events and new information, and when appropriate we make changes.”

According to a statement made to the NCIS by the marine’s colleague, the 2014 incident was not the first time he had suffered mental issues. In 2012 the marine had sought mental health support from the military but instead of being helped, “he was given a weapon and deployed to Afghanistan.”

Citing privacy concerns, Severns declined to comment on the issue.

At the time of the incident, which occurred approximately 150 meters from an off-base residential area, U.S. military officials did not notify local authorities about the barricade situation. Masaharu Noguni, mayor of Chatan, told the media: “Depending on the mental state and motivation of the marine, the incident could have endangered local citizens. I am very concerned about the situation because no details were disclosed.”

Recently in the U.S. there have been a number of on-base shootings by military-related personnel who were suffering from mental problems.

In September 2013 a Navy veteran shot dead 12 people at Washington Navy Yard, D.C., before being killed by police. In April 2014, on the U.S. Army’s Fort Hood, Texas, a soldier suffering from mental issues shot dead three service members and injured 16 others. The perpetrator committed suicide before he could be arrested.

According to U.S. government data, the suicide rate among active and retired military personnel is far higher than in the civilian population. Pentagon reports show 265 active service members killed themselves in 2015; the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that an average of 20 veterans killed themselves every day in 2014. The rate for male veterans is 18 percent higher than in the male civilian population of similar age, and for females the rate is 240 percent higher.

In addition to the barricade incident in 2014, problems with USMC weapon controls on Okinawa were highlighted in a report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense in 2011. Between February 2010 and February 2011, a government team visited 22 USMC armories in the prefecture to check whether their stockpile of 21,581 small arms — defined as including pistols, machine guns and rocket launchers — was correctly stored.

According to the report, 14 of the 22 armories did not maintain accurate data and discrepancies totaled 1,080. Problems included failure to register weapons or keep daily records of weapon transfers. There was at least one case where armorers had not cataloged a weapons shipment from Okinawa to a base in the U.S.

The Department of Defense inspectors criticized the USMC for not providing personnel with adequate training and the report concluded weapons’ storage “accountability and security guidance was incomplete and inconsistent.” Such failings, warned the report, put the armories at risk of theft or loss of small arms.

The USMC admitted arsenal personnel were inexperienced and unfamiliar with weapons’ storage systems. They stated they would improve procedures.

More recently, this year there have been a series of incidents related to U.S. military weapons safety on Okinawa.

Since March, at least five service members have been arrested at Naha Airport for attempting to carry live rounds on board civilian flights. On March 30, for example, a USMC staff sergeant was detained when X-rays of his hand luggage revealed 13 bullets. He was arrested for violations of the Firearm and Sword Control Law.

Meanwhile at Camp Hansen in April, the USMC was forced temporarily to halt live-fire training following incidents where bullets strayed into a civilian construction site within the installation. The rounds damaged a water tank and a worker’s car at Afuso Dam. In response to the incidents, the Okinawa Defense Bureau lodged a complaint with the U.S. military.

Jon Mitchell received the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Freedom of the Press Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2015 for his investigations into United States military contamination on Okinawa and other base-related problems.

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March 3 U.S. Air Force major arrested at Naha Airport with bullet in his golf bag

March 30 Marine staff sergeant with 13 bullets in hand luggage arrested at Naha Airport

April 1 Marine with three bullets in luggage arrested at Naha Airport

April 6 Water tank found broken after being hit by bullet at Afuso Dam site inside Camp Hansen.

April 13 Japanese worker’s parked car damaged by bullet, also at Afuso Dam site

May 8 Marine sergeant major with bullet in bag arrested at Naha Airport

May 18 Navy captain arrested for carrying a bullet at Naha Airport