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Navy SEAL dies in ‘freefall’ accident

Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael T. Ernst. (Naval Special Warfare Command/Released)
February 24, 2023

A Navy SEAL died after an accident during a freefall training exercise in Arizona on Sunday, with the cause unclear as an investigation gets underway.

Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael T. Ernst was pronounced dead Sunday afternoon at Banner University Medical Center in Tucson, a Naval Special Warfare Command spokesperson told American Military News. 

The “military freefall training accident” occurred in Marana, the spokesperson said. The cause of the accident is now under Navy investigation.

The nature of the training exercise is also unclear, but the term “military freefall” is generally associated with high-altitude parachute jumping.

Ernst was assigned to an east coast-based unit of Naval Special Warfare Command, which oversees the SEAL teams, according to records provided to AMN. He had been part of east coast special warfare units since 2012, except for a 10-month stint with the ROTC at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that ended in June.

He had earned a silver star, the U.S. military’s third highest decoration for valor in combat, as well as 27 other medals and ribbons.

Originally from Massachusetts, Ernst enlisted in 2009. He entered Navy boot camp on the Great Lakes in 2010, and trained for the SEALs in Alaska and California before spending 14 months at the main SEAL training center in San Diego, which he advanced from in 2012. 

The commander of Naval Special Warfare, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, described Ernst as “an exceptional teammate.” 

“He was a dedicated NSW Sailor who applied his talents and skills towards some of our nation’s hardest challenges, while selflessly mentoring his teammates,” Davids said. “Mike and his family will always be part of the NSW family, and he will never be forgotten.”

Two other SEALs have recently died in training exercises.

In May, injuries sustained during a helicopter landing mishap took the life of Electronics Technician 1st Class Ryan DeKorte. Prior to that, the commander of SEAL Team 8, Brian Bourgeois, died after falling from a helicopter during a fast-roping exercise in December 2021.

A Navy sailor, Kyle Mullen, also died in February 2021 during the SEALs’ arduous first phase of training, known as “Hell Week.”