Military commanders who oversaw a training exercise in which nine service members died were burnt out by the pandemic, and overwhelmed by the prospect of war with Iran and Donald Trump‘s militarization of the southern border, according to a new report.
Eight Marines and one sailor, aged 18-23, died on July 30, 2020, when their amphibious vehicle sank off the coast of California.
The armored ship-to-shore transport craft took on water and sank off the coast of San Clemente Island, while returning to the USS Somerset.
On Wednesday the results of two investigations into the accident – one from the Marines, one from the Navy – were published.
While not excusing failures in leadership, they found that the commanders were stressed out and struggling to deal with many competing demands.
The body of Pfc Bryan J. Baltierra (left), 19, of Corona, California, was flown to Delaware. Found at the scene was Lance Cpl Guillermo S. Perez (right), 20, of New Braunfels Texas. His body was flown to the Dover base on August 5
Other victims include Lance Cpl Marco A. Barranco (left), 21, of Montebello, California, and Pfc Jack Ryan Ostrovsky (right), 21, of Bend, Oregon
An amphibious vehicle like the one pictured sank in July 2020, killing eight Marines and one sailor. There are about 800 AAV’s in the Marine inventory that can carry up to 21 people and each weighs 26 tons
The amphibious vehicle was returning to the USS Somerset (pictured) when it sank in July 2020
Lt. Gen. Carl Mundy III, who led the Marines’ investigation, said it would be ‘a mistake to discount or overlook’ the demands on the forces, which he said contributed to the many errors.
Lt. Gen. Carl Mundy III led the investigation for the Marines, and reported that many of the commanders expressed concern at the weighty and competing demands on their time when the tragedy struck
‘The claims on their time and attention surfaced in a number of interviews with several senior officers who described the conditions during this period as second only to their experience in combat,’ Mundy wrote.
He said that ‘associated reverberations’ from a coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier had ‘compressed and complicated available training opportunities’ for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The Marines were also tasked with providing security for the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship that was deployed off the California coast to help with COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic.
Mundy also noted that the Marines had a number of other ‘non-standard’ missions at the time, including being sent to the U.S.-Mexico border for Trump’s immigration patrols.
Finally, he said they were ‘planning for major combat operations due to heightened tensions with Iran in January 2020.’
Pfc Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was killed during the accident last year
US Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California, was one of the victims. Gnem was posthumously advanced to the rank of Petty Officer Third Class and awarded his enlisted Fleet Marine Force Warfare Specialist qualification
Other victims include: Lance Cpl Chase D. Sweetwood (center), 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Cpl Wesley A. Rodd (left), 23, of Harris, Texas, and Cpl Cesar A. Villanueva (right), 21, of Riverside, California
Marine Corps investigators found in March that the deaths were ‘preventable,’ and said that complacency, poor maintenance and inspections, and inadequate training all contributed to the tragedy.
The victims of the amphibious tank disaster
- Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, California
- Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California
- Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin
- Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California
- Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Oregon
- Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Texas
- Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas
- Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon
- Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California
Seven marines in the vehicle, including its commander, survived.
The rescue effort was chaotic, they found, and the pumps designed to prevent the craft from sinking did not work quickly enough.
They found that no one factor was to blame, but rather a ‘sequence of mechanical failures’ caused the tragedy.
In May it was announced that Major General Robert Castellvi, who at the time was the commanding general of 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, had been suspended.
A month later he was fired – the highest-ranking officer to face disciplinary action in wake of the disaster.
His firing came after that of Lt. Col. Michael J. Regner, commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, in October 2020, and Col. Christopher Bronzi, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s commanding officer, who was relieved of his command in March 2021.
In all, 12 Marines have been or will be punished for their roles in the accident, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Ryan Bruce confirmed to Military.com.
The Navy did not fire any of their commanders, but Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener said that some faced administrative action. He did not say who had been reprimanded, or how.
‘This tragedy should never have occurred,’ Kitchener said.
‘We will not let the lives be lost in vain. We have learned from this, and we will permanently improve the way we plan and execute amphibious operations.’
He said the Navy was ‘reworking procedures and doctrine, clarifying aspects of amphibious operations, and instituting new training requirements to prevent future tragedies.’
An aerial view of the coast near San Clemente Island where the incident occurred
Pictured: A map showing the location of San Clemente island, off the coast of San Diego
The Navy’s investigation, led by Rear Admiral Christopher Sweeney, found that the USS Somerset’s commanding officer at the time, Navy Captain Dave Kurtz, ‘did not fully understand communication pathways’ between the ship and Marine vehicles involved in the operation.
Rear Admiral Christopher Sweeney, who led the investigation for the Navy, found that there were issued in communication, but that did not cause the accident itself
But Navy officials found that the Somerset – which the amphibious vehicle was heading to when it sank – responded promptly when the situation’s severity became clear, and that the communication problems did not cause the disaster.
Both Mundy and Sweeney made a series of recommendations, including that safety boats equipped to deal with boats in distress should be available.
At the time of the accident, the Navy’s safety boats were undergoing maintenance and so other armored landing craft were used instead.
One collided with the sinking vehicle while attempting a rescue, prompting it to roll over and sink rapidly.
Christiana Sweetwood, whose son was among the Marines killed, told The Washington Post that she was unimpressed at the explanations given.
‘I feel like so much at this point has been thrown at us,’ she said.
‘It’s almost like everyone is pointing fingers at each other.’
She said that she took comfort in the Navy’s promise to require safety boats in the future.
‘I’m trying to find my blessings wherever they are,’ she said.
‘Those safety boats, they are fast.’