The news that Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles will no longer deploy or be used in waterborne training was welcomed by some families of the nine service members who died in a tragic 2020 sinking.
But, they say their fight for some semblance of justice and the knowledge that future Marines will not die in preventable accidents is still ongoing.
“We left our boys to (the Marine Corps) in hopes that (the Marine Corps) would care for them well,” Carlos Baltierra told Marine Corps Times in a phone call. “But that was not done, they failed.”
Baltierra is the father of Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, who was just 18 when he died.
On July 30, 2020, an Marine Corps AAV with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit sank of the coast of California as it was participating in waterborne training.
The incident resulted in the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor. The Marine Corps and Navy launched multiple investigations into the sinking and determined it happened in part because the Marines onboard the AAV were not properly trained, and partly due to serious maintenance issues with the vehicle itself.
Several Marines have been relieved from command due to the accident, including Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, who was the commander of the 1st Marine Division during the unit’s predeployment training cycle.
The former 3rd Assault Amphibian battalion commander, Lt. Col. Keith Brenize, is currently facing a board of inquiry, which will determine his future in the Marine Corps.
Case prosecutors maintain that Brenize failed to ensure maintenance and training were properly performed prior to attaching an AAV platoon to the MEU.
Meanwhile, the defense maintains that the entirety of the Marine Corps’ AAV fleet faced daunting maintenance issues that went well beyond the scope of Brenize’s position as battalion commander.
“These are old vehicles,” Lt. Col. Matthew Hohl, the executive officer for 3rd AA Battalion, testified on Dec. 10.
“As a community, AAVs are extremely maintenance heavy,” the defense witness added, noting that an AAV typically requires eight hours of maintenance for every hour of operation.
The Marine Corps announced its decision to pull the AAVs from deployments and waterborne training on Dec. 15, citing the “state of the amphibious vehicle program,” which includes both AAVs and the amphibious combat vehicle scheduled to replace the AAV.
“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has decided the AAV will no longer serve as part of regularly scheduled deployments or train in the water during military exercises; AAVs will only return to operating in the water if needed for crisis response,” Maj. Jim Stenger, a Marine Corps spokesman, told Marine Corps Times in an email.
Peter Ostrovsky, the father of Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, who was 20 when the AAV sank, said that pulling the vehicle from the water was the right move made by the Marine Corps.
“It all appears logical that the Marine Corps would transition to exclusive use of the ACV for amphibious forced entry during deployments as more ACVs come on line,” the grieving father said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.
“In light of the catastrophe that resulted in the death of our son and the other Marines and Sailor along with the reported current state of the AAV fleet and the available parts inventory, it’s the right thing to do to avoid the possibility of further loss of life during AAV waterborne operations,” he added.
His sentiment was echoed by Aleta Bath, the mother of Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19 when he died, who said she was “extremely happy” the decision was finally made to pull those vehicles out of the water.
Bath said she was concerned that the Marine Corps said the AAVs would still be available in case of a “crisis.”
“I want to make sure that if they are in use for water, that the emergency is a true emergency,” she added.
Questions remained for Baltierra.
“I wish this was done back in 2016 … to pull these AAVs out of the water,” Baltierra said. “I am curious … what was it that made them finally say, ‘no more?’”
A lawsuit filed against BAE Systems claims that the mechanical failures that doomed their sons were defects known by the manufacturer.
“The only reason that nobody lived, was they couldn’t get out the door, the door just wouldn’t open,” Eric Dubin, one of the lawyers representing the families, told Marine Corps Times. “And we believe that was a manufacturing defect that was known about which puts BAE on the hook.”
Tim Paynter, a spokesman for BAE Systems, said the company will not comment on the specifics of the legal action against them.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families of the nine service members who were killed in this tragic accident,” Paynter said in a written statement before pointing to the multiple investigations conducted by the military into the incident. “We’re not in a position to comment on ongoing litigation.”
“The findings of those investigations have consistently identified issues other than the vehicle design as causes,” Paynter said.
The lawyers for the families said they hope to sit down with BAE Systems to talk about issues they see with the ACV to ensure there is no future tragic loss of life.
“The frustration we have right now … is that BAE won’t even come to the table,” Annee Della Donna, another lawyer representing the families, told Marine Corps Times.
Paynter told Marine Corps that BAE continues to ensure, “that every vehicle we produce meets the highest standards of quality, meets our customer’s requirements, and lives up to our mission of protecting our military service members. We would refer you to the U.S. Marine Corps for any additional information.”
Dubin said the lawyers have made it clear to BAE Systems, “that this is not about money and that we want to get past the money issues and work together on safety modifications.”
Though questions remain, lawsuits are still being sought and boards of inquiry are still to take place, the pulling of the AAVs has been a small win for the families, they say.
“We’re happy that the AAVs are beached, it’s a great day for our clients and for a little bit of justice,” Della Donna said.