A Marine Corps culture that lawmakers called one of mission over safety came under attack during a recent House Armed Services Committee readiness subcommittee hearing looking into failures that led to July 30, 2020, sinking of an amphibious assault vehicle and resulted in the deaths of nine service members.
Though the families were briefed on the roughly 2,000-page investigation, nine months of silence and some of the findings left many families still asking questions. Two parents of killed service members testified.
The hearing was called shortly after the Corps released its initial investigation into the AAV accident.
“Our safety culture has got to improve,” Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Gary Thomas told lawmakers May 3. “I share your view on making sure we have adequate oversight and we are looking at adding additional safety specialists at the right place to ensure that our exercises are as safe as they possibly can be.”
On July 30, 2020, an AAV attached to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit set off from the amphibious transport dock Somerset to conduct an amphibious raid on San Clemente Island, California.
During the raid three vehicles ended up having mechanical issues, one never left the beach, one was forced to be towed back, while the third, known as track five, ended up sinking off the California coast.
The first investigation into the incident conducted by the Marine Corps was released in March, revealing a multitude of mechanical and training failures led to a preventable tragedy.
“The investigation reveals a confluence of human and mechanical failures caused the sinking … and contributed to a delayed rescue effort,” Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, commander of Marine Forces Pacific, said in the investigation. “Ultimately, this tragic mishap was preventable.”
A father of one Marine who was killed testified that he was shocked when he saw that the pre-exercise confirmation briefing failed to mention any serious risk to the waterborne part of the training.
“As an experienced federal investigator who’s planned, conducted and approved many high-risk law enforcement operations, the lack of detail in the briefing tells me one of two things,” Ostrovsky testified on May 3. “Either it was intentional as an alleged cover up for the lack of readiness, or the exercise planners were not qualified to appropriately assess risk, or perhaps both.”
Peter Vienna testified that he similarly was shocked at how ill-prepared the Marine Corps was to conduct that mission.
“They’re lucky that only one AAV sank,” he told Congress.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., told the two fathers, “Obviously your two sons were among our nations finest, there is no doubt about that.”
“We owe it to you to get to the bottom of this, so that you can take solace in the fact that the end result of this will be that these kinds of accidents will be more prevented in the future than otherwise been the case.”
The service members who died that day were, Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, California, a rifleman. Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California, a rifleman. Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman. U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California, a hospital corpsman. Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman. Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 22, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman. Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman. Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California, a rifleman. And Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, a rifleman.
So far, only one of the three investigations into the AAV sinking have been completed.
The Naval Safety Center started its investigation into the sinking in summer 2020 but has not yet completed it. In early April the Marine Corps launched its second investigation, this time looking into the forming of the 15th MEU and the problems that led to the accident.
Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander of the Naval Surface Forces, said the Navy has launched another investigation into the accident that should be released soon.
“When we reviewed the investigation, we agreed with the fundamental conclusion that there were no causal factors attributable to the Navy, however, what we did find left a few questions unanswered,” Kitchener said. “We opened our own investigation to understand what actions and decisions Navy personnel made that day could have contributed to the tragedy and then what policies and practices may be required and must be improved.”
The investigation is expected to be completed within 30 days, Kitchener added.
Though the trigger of the hearing was the recent AAV sinking, lawmakers took a close look at a Marine Corps culture that has allowed these incidents to happen regularly.
California Democrat Rep. John Garamendi pointed out that 60 Marines have died in the past five years during training accidents.
“What’s most upsetting is the failure of the surface Navy and the Marine Corps to develop a culture of safety that would impower junior service members to alert the chain of command when there is a breach of safety protocols,” California Democrat Rep. John Garamendi said, pointing out that 60 Marines have died in the last five years during training accidents.
Marine veteran and Arizona Democrat Rep. Ruben Gallego agreed, “When I was enlisted in the Marine Corps I was told if I ever saw anything that was endangering, especially in terms of any exercises, that I could call for an immediate stop and there would be no ramifications for that even though I was just a lance corporal. Well clearly that’s not true and I think that’s what happened here.”
Garamandi said a way to prevent that issue is to have an independent Marine assigned to every “dangerous” exercise, designated to oversee the safety of the mission and capable of calling an end to training at any point in time.
Beyond the need for a safety culture change, lawmakers brought up possible changes to the Feres Doctrine, which historically has been used to block the Department of Defense from being sued for wrongful death.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, said the antiquated part of the law goes back to a 1950s Supreme Court decision and “really needs to be updated and modernized.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., agreed.
“We need to expand (Feres Doctrine reform) to deal with gross negligence in situations like this,” Speier said. “There is a hefty price tag that comes with it of course, but the lives that are lost are real lives.”
Speier later asked both Thomas and Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, assistant deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, for their opinion about the Feres Doctrine.
Both Marines declined to answer.
Garamendi told Marine Corps Times in April that he is not in favor of any change to the doctrine at this time, but would rather focus on changing the Marine Corps’ culture around safety and ensuring all Marines responsible for issues are held accountable.