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Nine men who died in Marine training accident came from around the country and stages in life

Search operations under way after an AAV accident off the coast of California on July 30, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Many of the eight men now presumed dead after their amphibious assault vehicle sunk in deep water off San Clemente Island were celebrating milestones in their personal lives as they trained for their military careers.

An 18-year-old from Corona was marking his first anniversary as a Marine, a new dad had a first son back home in Texas and a Portland man would have turned 19 during the 40-hour search-and-rescue effort that was mounted to find the group. A ninth Marine was found dead shortly after the AAV vanished from the surface.

The eight, who were based at Camp Pendleton as part of the Battalion Landing Team 1/4, have been missing since Thursday, July 30, when their AAV took on water and sank during the training exercise.

Military officials called off the search and rescue early Sunday after more than 1,000 square nautical miles of ocean were scoured using multiple ships and aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The HOS Dominator, a Navy ship that specializes in undersea search and rescue, has taken over recovery efforts.

Pfc. Bryan Baltierra

Baltierra, 18, of Corona died on the anniversary of his Marine Corps enlistment.

He was just 17 when he entered the Marines in 2019 after graduating from Centennial High and turned 18 while finishing boot camp.

“Brian was a terrific role model and a terrific kid for us on our campus, we’re heartbroken over his loss,” said Bill Gunn, assistant principal of athletics at Centennial, where Baltierra ran cross-country.

“On one hand, we’re happy that he got to achieve his dream of being a United States Marine,” Gunn said. It’s tragic, he said, that Baltierra’s time was cut short at the beginning of this next phase in his life.

Jared Schweitzer was Baltierra’s cross-country coach for four years and his teacher in government and economics.

“Everyone liked him; he was just that kind of a kid,” Schweitzer said. “No matter what I asked at practice, he would do it and not complain. He had a lot of integrity. He was great to be around.”

On Sunday, Aug. 2, the Baltierra family held a drive-by memorial in Corona to celebrate his life. Hundreds stopped by.

“It was beautiful to see how my family’s community came together,” his mother, Evelyn Baltierra, said on Monday. “All of the love and support has tremendously helped during this long and painful healing process.”

Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco

Barranco, 21, known as “Andy,” was from Montebello.

He was a kind-hearted person with a lot of love to share, said his father, Marco Barranco, also of Montebello.

Andy Barranco developed a fascination for the military as a young boy. He loved dressing up as a soldier for Halloween.

“He used that costume for a long time because he liked camouflage,” his father said. “He wanted to serve his country because he was so proud that it gave his parents an opportunity to realize our dreams. He wanted to pay back the country for that.”

Marco Barranca last saw his son on July 25. The family shared a meal and Andy told them of the upcoming training on the island.

“He was excited to be going there,” Marco Barranco said. “To him, it was a job that he loved to do.”

Barranco said his son’s goal was to serve people. He had planned to become a police officer after finishing his time with the Marines.

“He liked helping and serving people, and he knew this was part of his overall plan,” he said. “He was a brave kid, and it shouldn’t have happened.”

Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva

The 21-year-old from Riverside had always wanted to be a Marine, his mother, Maria Villanueva, said in news reports.

She added that he had just gotten married and had hoped to have a family.

He enlisted on Sept. 5, 2017, and after boot camp reported to Marine Corps Security Force training in Virginia. He reported to Camp Pendleton in March.

Maria Villanueva said she wants her son remembered as a kind, outgoing person.

U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem

The 22-year-old Stockton native was the only Navy sailor in the group. Likely, he was responsible for helping others get out, his girlfriend, Savannah Henne, wrote in a heartfelt Facebook post.

“I know he was pushing his Marines out first trying to be the true hero that he’s always been,” she wrote. “He didn’t need to doc up right then, but I’m sure two people are still alive because of him.”

Henne, also a Navy corpsman, called him the love of her life and said the two were planning to marry once he returned. She described him as “the most purest and sweetest soul” she had ever met.

Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd

The 23-year-old from Harris, Texas, was the oldest among the squad. He had just become a father and posted a photo of his newborn son on Facebook on May 14.

Rodd enlisted in the Marine Corps on Jan. 3, 2017. Earlier this year, he returned to Camp Pendleton.

Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood

His aunt, Niki Stockdale, said Sweetwood, of Portland, Oregon, was just a day shy of his 19th birthday when he disappeared. She said his goal was to become a Marine and that’s what he did.

A GoFundMe account to help his mother, Tina Sweetwood, travel to San Diego, had raised more than $11,000 – the outpouring an example of who her nephew was, Stockdale said.

“His heart was so big, he just drew people to him,” she said.

Pfc. Evan A. Bath

The 19-year-old from Oak Creek, Wis., contacted his mother, Aleta Bath, hours before he disappeared.

On the day of the accident, he found an area on the ship where his phone worked and called his mom. Earlier, he had texted her saying he’d lost his earbuds and needed new ones. When he got the signal, he wanted to make sure she’d gotten his request.

He also told her he loved her, and that he was enjoying his job, she said.

Aleta said it was her son’s fascination with history, military strategy and drawing that drew him to the Marines. He spent hours creating maps of make-believe countries with details down to small villages and the people who lived there. He dreamed up scenarios and histories for all his fictional countries and their militaries.

“He also really loved the brotherhood of the Marine Corps,” Aleta Bath said. “He’d always say: ‘They’re my brothers; I would die for them and they would die for me.’”

Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky

The 21-year-old from Bend, Oregon, enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 3, 2019. He reported to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton and was trained as a rifleman.

Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez

The 20-year-old of New Braunfels, Texas, enlisted June 24, 2019. He reported to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton and was trained as a rifleman.


© 2020 The Orange County Register