JUNEAU — The sole survivor of a deadly 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash has been removed from the promotion list, a decision his attorney said could end Lt. Lance Leone’s military career.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last week agreed with the findings of a special board in removing Leone from the list.
Leone attorney John Smith told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Leone would try to get on the list again this summer and appeal a derogatory report in his personnel file cited as a factor in the decision to remove Leone from the list during the last go-round. Smith said if Leone’s passed over again and an appeal to have the report struck from his record is unsuccessful, Leone’s Coast Guard career will be over. “Because at this level, it’s up or out,” Smith said.
“He is distraught, there is no doubt,” Smith said of Leone. “I have not seen him like this.”
Leone was the co-pilot of a helicopter flying from Astoria, Ore., to the crew’s base in Sitka, Alaska, when it hit an unmarked span of low-hanging wires maintained by the Coast Guard and crashed off the Washington coast in July 2010. Killed in the crash were pilot Sean Krueger and crewmen Brett Banks and Adam C. Hoke.
Leone, who during his career earned Coast Guard awards and accolades, was accused of not actively navigating or challenging Krueger’s decision to drop in altitude seconds before the helicopter hit the wires. Charges against Leone, including negligent homicide, were dropped in line with the recommendations of an investigating officer who oversaw a 2011 military hearing in the case. The Coast Guard’s Alaska commander later included in Leone’s personnel file his finding that Leone’s actions directly contributed to the deaths of his colleagues and destruction of the aircraft.
A special board that reviewed Leone’s case last November found notwithstanding his “strong performance” during his time in service, his performance and conduct surrounding the crash were deemed grounds for removal from the promotion list. The board, noting the negative personnel report, said Leone “should have been more assertive in ensuring the safe operation of the aircraft” in accordance with policy.
The Coast Guard’s commandant also recommended to Napolitano that Leone be removed.
Smith sees what’s happened to Leone as a “vindictive campaign to find a scapegoat.” He said in an email that the Coast Guard’s final report on the crashed “skewed the facts” and the Coast Guard failed to properly mark the wires hit by the helicopter.
The Coast Guard’s final report found lack of communication and Krueger and Leone’s failure to properly perform their duties contributed to the crash. It found a lack of adequate markings on the wires, the site of at least two other accidents, may have contributed to the 2010 crash.
Leone was reassigned to San Antonio, where Smith said he has served as a Coast Guard liaison to a military health system.
Smith said Leone is doing well in his new post, and he expects Leone’s commanders to recommend him for promotion during the next round this summer. He said the odds of success are long.