QUANTICO, Virginia ― Marine expeditionary units deployments are often viewed as the “flagship” deployment for Marine Corps trackers and as an opportunity to show off amphibious assault vehicle capabilities.
“These platoons are our best,” Maj. Justin Davis, 3rd Assault Amphibian’s current operations officer, said Tuesday in Quantico, Virginia.
One of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion AAVs sank on July 30, 2020, while transporting infantry Marines from San Clemente Island, California, to the transport dock Somerset after completing a training raid as part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Two Marines testified this week that the unit’s commander at the time, Lt. Col. Keith Brenize, failed to send the best vehicles or ensure the AAV platoon had enough training time before the accident, which killed eight Marines and one sailor. They also said the platoon didn’t get the extra attention customary within the tracker community.
Now a panel of officers is determining Brenize’s responsibility for the events at the board of inquiry hearing.
“Lt. Col. Brenize was responsible for manning, training and equipping the platoon,” Davis testified at the hearing. “He was the battalion commander.”
Lack of training
On Tuesday, the second day of the hearing, scheduled for Monday through Friday, Davis, along with battalion operations chief Master Gunnery Sgt. Michael Chouinard testified that tracks traditionally send “the best of the best” on Marine expeditionary units.
Davis said those exemplary Marines are then given 10–12 months to work together and perfect skills to ensure they are operating at a “varsity” level before deploying.
However, in 2020 the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion Marines sent on the 15th MEU were only given four months to work together, an investigation into the incident later revealed.
The problems created by this compressed timeline were amplified by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a decision to send the platoon on a training exercise in the Middle East that did not involve any waterborne operations, previous investigations have found.
Both men testified that the best Marines were chosen for the job, but Davis said the Marines were given significantly less time to train than normal.
Previous investigations also found the platoon failed to go through a required combat evaluation prior to the deployment.
The investigations noted that while a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation, known as a MCCRE, was required for platoon-level deployments, the regulation was ambiguous and could be misinterpreted. There were no records of AAV platoons going through such an evaluation prior to a Marine expeditionary unit deployment, according to one investigation by Lt. Gen. Carl E. Mundy III, released on Oct. 6.
Despite the lack of formal MCCREs, Davis said AAV platoons normally go through an evaluation that is the equivalent of one. However, no evaluation, formal or informal, was done in this case.
Both Marines testified Tuesday that poor decisions and a failure to follow standard operating procedures may have led to the nine deaths.
The platoon commander, 1st Lt. Thomas McAleese, failed to adequately ensure the Navy sent the required safety vehicles for the return trip, a previous investigation found.
No safety vehicles were on the return trip ― a serious failure of leadership, Davis testified.
In addition, the AAV’s crew did not conduct a thorough search for a leak in the transmission line. The leak was spotted while on the island, but instead of trying to identify the leak or report the incident, the crew refilled the transmission with oil and moved on.
“If you have six gallons of oil missing, obviously there is a problem,” Chouinard said Tuesday.
Davis, who served as the subject matter expert on the initial investigation, said, “At that point you stop.”
But, instead, the crew added the oil and moved on.
Then, during the return trip, the AAV’s transmission seized up, stranding it in the water.
Davis also testified there was no evidence the platoon conducted the required checks prior to returning to the Somerset, and that those checks may have identified some of the issues that led to the sinking.
The vehicle commander, Gunnery Sgt. Trevor Johnson ― a staff sergeant during the incident ― then repeatedly missed the standard operating procedure evacuation rules, leaving Marines inside the vehicle long after they should either have been sent to another AAV or simply floated in the water until another vehicle could pick them up.
Johnson “failed to make a decision,” Davis said.
However, Davis testified that no additional training could have ensured that different decisions were made that day. He noted that safely recreating the sinking conditions in a training environment was nearly impossible.
“No one in this room, not Lt. Col. Brenize could’ve trained (Johnson) otherwise,” Davis said.
Davis said the platoon knew the standard operating procedures but chose not to follow them for various reasons.
Those decisions happened well outside the scope of Brenize’s power.
In addition to getting the best Marines, Marine expeditionary units normally get the best amphibious assault vehicles available for the deployment.
But both Chouinard and Davis testified that the vehicles sent on the MEU were not the best the battalion had to offer.
While preparing for the MEU, Brenize conducted a battalion reorganization that ultimately led to the deployment vehicles coming from a lot for vehicles not currently needed by the battalion.
Vehicles were supposed to go into the deadline lot in working order, and though they were only operated sparingly, it was expected that those vehicles could be operational within a week or two from leaving the log, Chouinard testified.
But, when Davis examined the lot in the immediate wake of the AAV sinking he said the vehicles were in “awful” condition.
In August 2020 Davis inspected all 32 vehicles that remained in the administrative deadline lot and only found one to be operational, he testified.
The initial investigation found that only one of the 13 deployment vehicles selected by the MEU had been operational on April 20, 2020 ― just more than three months before the accident.
Both Marines testified that the vehicles chosen for the deployment were not the best in the battalion and said they would have preferred different vehicles to be chosen.
Chouinard acknowledged the differences between the vehicles chosen and the ones he would have preferred were relatively nominal.
Both Marines testified that Brenize was difficult position with the demands of the deployment, divestments of AAVs and scheduled upgrades to certain vehicles.
Brenize faced “something I don’t think any other unit had to put up with,” Chouinard said.
Despite those struggles, both Marines said Brenize ultimately was responsible for the training failures and the faulty MEU vehicles.
On Tuesday, a legal adviser for the board of inquiry allowed a written statement from the father of a rifleman who died in the accident to be submitted as evidence.
“The loss of Jack-Ryan has devastated our family,” wrote Peter Ostrovsky, the father of Pfc. Jack-Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon.
“His loss has destroyed our family’s future plans. Jack-Ryan was supposed to be the next leader of our family; who was going to create his own legacy of success through his military career. We were looking forward to someday to watching Jack-Ryan build a family of his own and blessing us with grandchildren.”
Marine Lt. Col. Christian Hur, one of the lawyers prosecuting Brenize for the board, said Ostrovsky submitted the statement because he was unable to afford a trip to Quantico, Virginia, where the board was held.
Phillip Stackhouse, a civilian lawyer representing Brenize, argued that the statement was in effect a witness impact statement and should not have been reviewed by the board members until they had decided whether Brenize was responsible for the accident.
Boards, though similar in structure to a court-martial, do not have a separate sentencing portion and normally the findings and the decision on the Marine’s future is given all at once.