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Two investigations underway to find cause of Marine Corps’ deadliest AAV training accident

A Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by CWO2 Keith A. Stevenson/Released)

Military officials have launched two investigations to determine why an amphibious assault vehicle sank recently during training off San Clemente Island, killing nine of its crew in what is now being called the deadliest training accident in the history of this legacy Marine Corps seafaring vehicle.

After a training raid with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 13 AAVs and their crews left the northwest beaches of the island on July 30 to return to the USS Somerset, a Navy transport dock waiting just offshore. One vehicle took on more water than it could handle and sank.

Investigations into what caused the 26-ton vehicle to sink are being done separately by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Naval Safety Center.

What is called a line of duty investigation, done by the expeditionary force, will review operational aspects, including the vehicle’s watertight integrity, the leadership and whether training protocols were followed. If there is any disciplinary action, it would be recommended by this investigation. The safety center investigation will go further into inspecting the vehicle and looking for causes of the sinking, and will recommend corrective actions to prevent future tragedies.

Both investigations will take weeks, if not months.

The AAV with 16 service members on board wouldn’t have traveled off the sand before a standard “pre-water ops” checklist was completed, which would include inspections by a launch team to make sure the vehicle was watertight and that anything mechanical and essential to staying afloat was operational. Typically checked are whether plenum doors, which control airflow, are secure, if bilge pumps are functioning, if hull plugs are in place and if the big propellers that move the track are working.

But about a mile-and-a-half out to sea, 400 feet above the seafloor, the AAV somehow was overtaken by water and sank. Seven Marines got out and were rescued by another AAV crew. One Marine was found dead at the time. Seven other Marines and a Navy corpsman – three were from Southern California – did not escape and were later recovered when the vehicle was located on the ocean floor.

How soon after making it through the surf zone the AAV took on the water is unclear. There have been some reports of higher surf once the vehicles were in open water.

Marine Corps officials this week confirmed the AAV launch followed the standard protocols and that surf conditions were within the approved parameters for the vehicles to “splash.” They also said that a second AAV became disabled and had to be towed to the Somerset by a third vehicle in the group.

Officials also confirmed that the service members aboard the AAV were trained to escape from a sinking vehicle and were current in their qualifications. This training is required for all Marines and sailors who ride in amphibious assault vehicles.

Immediately after the accident, Commandant Gen. David Berger suspended all AAV water training across the Marine Corps. The Marines have about 800 of the vehicles in use.

The AAVs – many built in the 1970s – have been retrofitted and repaired multiple times..

The safety center, a Virginia-based Naval command, has confirmed the July 30 accident is the deadliest in the Marine Corps’ training use of the AAV. In combat, 15 Marines were killed in August 2005 in Iraq when one of the vehicles hit an improvised explosive device.

Since 2010, there have been 77 accidents involving AAVs, the safety center confirmed, but only three that are considered Class A – meaning $2.5 million or more in damage to the vehicle or there was a death or permanent disability. The decade began with four accidents in 2010 and spiked in 2018 with 16 accidents, then 21 in 2019, and there have been 14 accidents so far this year.

Before the July accident, the center’s data shows that eight other Marines have died in an AAV vehicle-related accident and that only two people have died in water-related training accidents. The center began collecting safety data on AAVs and the vehicle’s predecessor, the LVT, in 1969. The first fatal AAV accident was reported in 1988 at Twentynine Palms.

For Camp Pendleton, the July accident was the third in a decade. In 2017, 14 Marines and a corpsman were severely burned when their AAV hit an exposed gas line during a training exercise on base. In 2011, a Marine sergeant died after a stuck accelerator drove an AAV underwater in the Del Mar boat basin. Five other Marines in the AAV escaped. The latter accident investigation resulted in eight Marines, including a battalion commander, being relieved of duty.

The July AAV accident adds to a trend in training accidents in which the number of military members who die is outpacing combat deaths. A July report by the Congressional Research Service, which looked at active-duty military deaths between 2006 and 2018 found that 32% were the result of training accidents. During that same time period, 16% of service members were killed in action.

In 2017, nearly four times as many service members died in training accidents than were killed in action.

The high number of training deaths – specifically rollover vehicle deaths – has prompted lawmakers to push for change in all military training.

“This is not an isolated training accident,” said Michael McDowell, whose son, 1st Lt. Conor McDowell, a platoon leader with the Marine 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, died on May 9, 2019, when his light armored vehicle plunged into a deep crevasse on a Camp Pendleton training range rolling and crushing the Marine. “There is a deep systemic problem across the Marine Corps and Army inventory of thousands of armored vehicles, both amphibious and land-based.”

McDowell points to the age of the AAVs, which have endured years of use in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the investigations still need to determine whether vehicle maintenance and age played a role in this instance, McDowell and other families of service members killed in training are asking for reforms.

“To keep these vehicles going, the military is often forced to cannibalize others for replacement parts,” McDowell said. “There are precious few new vehicles. The Pentagon spends billions of our tax dollars on planes, ships, missiles and other high-priced items, but the overlooked infantry often have to make do with second-rate and third-rate vehicles, which are killing far too many.”

The Government Accountability Office has launched a yearlong inquiry into training deaths, with a focus on rollovers in the Army and the Marine Corps. Their report, which should be released in early 2021, is expected to suggest remedies.

“Amtracers,” the nickname for those who serve with the AAVs in the Marines, are stunned by what occurred on July 30 and are anxious to learn the outcomes of the investigations. The topic has been a point of discussion for many within the tight-knit community sometimes referred to as the “Amtrac Mafia.” One veteran, who owns a clothing company, has raised more than $5,000 to help the families of the dead servicemen by creating memorial T-shirts.

Many AAV veterans say the versatile vehicle, which in an earlier version first served in World War II, is largely safe.

Retired Lt.Col. Kent Ralson, a veteran Amtrac officer, who in his various command positions over a 27-year career investigated and reviewed a number of AAV incidents and who had his own close calls in treacherous conditions, is among those.

“These vehicles are very safe,” he said. “They don’t just sink. I have been in bad conditions and never worried that it would sink.”

And in the few cases where he did see one sink while he oversaw AAV operations, he said no one was killed.

In 1988, when Ralston was second lieutenant, one of his platoon drivers drove the AAV down into the New River at Camp Lejeune with the ramp down and the vehicle sunk immediately. There was another case where the vehicle splashed off a ship with the troop hatch open and sank. In both cases, no one was injured.

As part of this investigation, the witness and command statements will be very important in determining what went wrong, he said.

“It’s interesting when you get multiple observers to the same event and they all come up with something a little different,” he said. “They may be asked how long from the time the distress signal was sent until the vehicle sank. They will probably get multiple different answers to that question. So the physical evidence coupled with statements will be put together and conclusions will be made.”

Ralston said Marines train extensively on how to get out of a vehicle taking on water.

“You pop the cargo hatches and everyone climbs up to the top of the vehicle and jumps in the water,” he said. “Everyone teams up with a buddy and swims to the recovering AAV or a Navy safety boat.”

But in this case, Ralston said that might not have helped.

“The AAV won’t flip over like a helicopter, so if you aren’t out before the water starts to rush through the cargo hatch, it’s going to be difficult to fight the weight of the water rushing in until the vehicle is completely full of water,” he said. “Theoretically, you could wait until the vehicle reaches the bottom and open a hatch once the equalization has taken place. That may work in a river or shallow water, but in the depths off California this would probably be impossible.”

In many of the cases that Ralston is either aware of or investigated, the issue was either human error or a vehicle hit something and caused the hull to no longer be watertight.

“This would typically cause more water intrusion than the pumps could handle,” he said.

An AAV has four bilge pumps that can move up to 440 gallons of water a minute. Investigators will look at whether the pumps were working.

By the fact that the vehicle made it off the beach and more than a mile out, Ralston said he doesn’t think a hatch being left open is a likely scenario.

Among the Marine Corps’ most iconic vehicles, AAVs are used to transport infantry troops between sea and shore. When coming off a ship, they can travel on the open sea for hours, but are half submerged. They can cross land at 45 mph and can power through 8-foot plunging surf.

They carry troops in enclosed compartments and can transport 21 Marines, including about 200 pounds of gear for each. Quarters are incredibly tight and the only visibility is through a 2-by-3.5-inch viewpoint in the back. The vehicle’s main hatch is on the top, where there is also a smaller one; then there’s a commander’s hatch, a drivers’ hatch, a gunner’s hatch and a rear hatch.

Retired Major Vince Dees, a veteran 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion company commander who served for 24 years, said he’s been in a typhoon off Okinawa in one of the vehicles.

“I’ve been in severe conditions and saw this vehicle respond,” he said. “I have a couple of lieutenant colonel friends and we have no idea what happened. It’s so out of character for this vehicle.”

Since the shocking accident, he too has run the scenario through his mind many times.

“If the vehicle is taking on water, they can make a decision to transfer the passengers,” he said. “If it doesn’t make sense to transfer the passengers because of the sea state, it might make sense to tell them to get into the water. If it’s fairly calm, you can open a cargo hatch. If the sea state is rough they can egress through the troop commander hatch. I know instances where the crew has had to ride them down 50 to 100 feet.”

Dees, like many Amtracers, is proud of the vehicle and said he put his trust in it many times. The community is small, with only two battalions, the 2nd Amphibian Assault Battalion based at Courthouse Bay on Camp Lejeune and the 3rd Amphibian Assault Battalion based at Camp Del Mar on Camp Pendleton, a reserve unit and schools. They pride themselves on operating in a unique vehicle that has a storied history which included countless combat and humanitarian operations around the world.

“We are the first to the beach and the last off the beach,” Ralston said. “We are what makes the Marine Corps unique from the Army. We are what makes us amphibious.”

“Most of us realize that it could have happened to us,” he said. “It just goes to show how even training in the Marine Corps is dangerous. We try to eliminate as much risk as possible, but always have to accept some risk.”


© 2020 The Orange County Register