As early motions got underway in the court-martial of a Marine charged with involuntary manslaughter in a Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, vehicle rollover, a new vehicle accident at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, sent three Marines to the hospital, Marine Corps Times has learned.
While officials would confirm few details about the new mishap, it came as the Marine Corps faces intense scrutiny over what some are calling a trend of on-duty vehicle rollovers, some of them fatal.
The newest accident took place Friday and involved a tactical all-terrain vehicle at a Twentynine Palms, California, training area, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brandon Owen, a base spokesman, confirmed in a statement. Four Marines were in the vehicle at the time.
“Three service members sustained minor injuries in the accident and were released from care on the same day,” Owen said in the statement. “Adherence to safety standards is an essential component of taking care of Marines and Sailors and the conduct of effective training.”
Officials could not immediately confirm what time the incident had taken place, what the Marines were doing at the time or the extent of their injuries.
Owen added that the Combat Center would thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and “take any necessary steps” to keep future accidents from happening.
While Owen could not confirm the unit involved in the mishap, multiple sources confirmed Marines involved belonged to II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina ― at the California base temporarily for a training exercise.
Meanwhile, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Luis Ponce-Barrera faces charges including negligent homicide and reckless operation of a vehicle in the case of a fatal vehicle rollover that took place just outside the base in January 2022.
Ponce-Barrera had been the driver of a medium tactical vehicle replacement, or 7-ton truck, that rolled over while taking a fast right turn at a traffic intersection near Lejeune’s back gate. The Marine passengers inside the vehicle were ejected. Two were killed in the accident’s aftermath, and all were injured, some critically.
But parents of a number of the Marines involved, who spoke exclusively with Marine Corps Times in March ahead of Ponce-Barrera’s court-martial, said they felt the young Marine was unfairly being held to account for a situation largely beyond his control. Inexperienced and fresh out of training, they said, Ponce-Barrera never should have been required or permitted to drive the vehicle under the circumstances he did. They also stressed their feeling that Marines farther up the chain of command should have to answer for the day’s tragedy.
“It doesn’t feel like anybody’s looking up the chain of command to see what the hell happened,” Jen Riffle, stepmother to Pfc. Zachary Riffle, who was killed in the accident, told Marine Corps Times.
A tactical all-terrain vehicle is a very different and much smaller rig than a 7-ton truck. And much is still unknown about the recent accident.
But the mishap underscores a growing call for safety standards, higher scrutiny and leadership reform when it comes to the dangerous business of tactical vehicle operation. Some vocal critics have said that training and permissions to drive military vehicles historically have been treated cavalierly, particularly when compared with the rigid standards applied to military aviation.
A 2021 Government Accountability Office report found 123 troops, mostly Marines and soldiers, had died in noncombat tactical vehicle incidents between 2010–2019, and that “driver inattention, supervision lapses and training shortfalls were common causes.”
But in 2019, Marine Corps Times reported that Marine and Navy noncombat-related tactical military vehicle accidents and rollovers were at a ten year low, and those mishaps also appeared to be on a general decline, according to data provided by the Navy Safety Center.
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.