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Families left in dark about mortar blast investigation

Jun. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Honoring Lance Cpl. Martino
Community members gather March 28 to pay their respects to Lance Cpl. Joshua Martino, 19, in DuBois, Pa. Martino was one of seven Marines who were killed during a live-fire mortar training exercise in Nevada. (Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/U.S. Air Force)
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The mother of a Marine killed in a tragic live-fire training accident in Nevada in March said she had to read about the results of the command investigation into the incident in the news, after they were released May 29.

Karen Perry’s son, 19-year-old Pfc. Joshua Martino, of Clearfield, Pa., was the youngest of seven members of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, who were killed when a 60mm mortar round exploded during nighttime training at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev.

Shortly after the tragedy, Perry received an incident report about her son’s death. In April, she and other family members of the fallen met with Marine officials, including then-battalion commander Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty and Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, when they all convened aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., for a memorial ceremony.

After that, silence.

Perry said it was jarring to learn through the news on May 8 that three unit officers, including McNulty, had been relieved in the wake of the accident; and it was shocking to learn on May 29 that the Marine Corps had determined the tragedy to be the result of human, not mechanical, error.

“We have to call to say, ‘What is going on?’ ” Perry said. “We’ve been told so many different things; we’ve heard so many different things.”

Other family members said they were also in the dark.

“The Marine Corps, other than simply saying they investigated, has not given us any other information,” said Robert Coakley, grandfather of Lance Cpl. Roger “R.J.” Muchnick, 23, who was killed in the mortar blast. “We have not heard anything from the Marine Corps since we were down for the ceremony, I believe.”

A news release the Marine Corps published on its website May 29 said the 2nd Marine Division command investigation had determined that “Marines employing one of the mortars did not follow correct procedures, resulting in the detonation of a high-explosive round at the mortar position.”

The announcement said the mortar round “exploded in the immediate vicinity of the mortar section’s firing position,” but officials would not clarify further whether the round had exploded in its tube or outside of it.

The release went on to reiterate that 2nd Marine Division commanding general, Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, had relieved McNulty, company commander Capt. Kelby Breivogel, and battalion infantry weapons officer Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring “because he lost trust and confidence in their ability to ensure proper preparation for, and conduct of, live-fire training events.”

The investigation determined there was no equipment malfunction with the 60mm mortar system the Marines used at Hawthorne.

Capt. Eric Flanagan, a spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps, said the suspension of the M224A1 60mm mortar system for all Marine Corps commands has now been lifted.

A spokesman for 2nd Marine Division, 1st Lt. Peter Koerner, said the results of the command investigation are still considered preliminary; no other information was immediately available.

Another division spokesman, Lt. D. Oliver David, confirmed via email that family members had not been sent a copy of the investigation results.

Procedurally, David said, a report will be filed to Headquarters Marine Corps stating that the investigation has been completed. A staff judge advocate will then redact classified parts of the investigation and send it to HQMC so that it can be released to the family.

Not everyone is content to watch and wait, however.

“We’re very upset. It’s baloney that anything is being released without saying, ‘Hey, has the family been notified first?’ ” Perry said. “You don’t want to keep reliving it.”

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