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9 deaths in July’s Marine AAV training off California coast were preventable, investigation finds

Marines riding Assault Amphibious Vehicles, head toward the shore during 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s MEU Exercise, June 28, 2018. (Official Marine Corps Photo by Gunnery Sgt. T. T. Parish)

The death of eight Marines and a sailor when their armored seafaring vehicle sank nearly 400 feet to the ocean bottom during a July training accident off San Clemente Island could have been prevented, said an investigation released by the Marine Corps on Thursday, March 25.

Seven of the 16 Marines in the amphibious assault vehicle, commonly called an AAV, were able to get out of the 26-ton vehicle as it was overtaken by water about three miles out to sea — one man was found dead floating in his body armor and a life vest. The other eight men were trapped in what is being called the deadliest accident in the Marine Corps’ history with the armored vehicles used to transport infantry troops between beaches and ships out in the ocean.

Three of the Marines were from Southern California.

“This investigation reveals a confluence of human and mechanical failures caused the sinking of the AAV and contributed to a delayed rescue effort, resulting in the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor,” Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, wrote in the command investigation report during his final review as senior officer on Feb. 25. “Ultimately, the tragic mishap was preventable.”

High surf, the poor condition of the aging AAV fleet, an inability to quickly get Marines out of the vehicles, improper training and a lack of leadership are among a domino effect of factors identified in the redacted report that took eight months to complete and has gone through reviews by layers of military command.

The investigation is one of two looking at what caused the vehicle to sink during the July 30 training raid with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“As an organization, we catastrophically failed,” Marine Col. Mark Van Skike told the family of rifleman Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, 18, of Corona, as he briefed them Monday on the report’s findings.

Still with Baltierra in the AAV when it sank were riflemen Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello; Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 22, of Harris, Texas; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon; and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside and U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, a hospital corpsman.

Rifleman Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, was pronounced dead on the scene.

The eight men were found near the vehicle on the ocean’s floor on Aug. 7 after a days-long search. They were still in their armor, all but one had on a life preserver. Seven were found outside the vehicle and one inside. Most still wore their helmets and two had their M-4 rifles slung around them, the report says.

“It’s extremely emotional to go through the details,” said Evelyn Baltierra, Bryan Baltierra’s mother, minutes after being briefed. “I get to feel how he suffered being in the dark. All the wrongs, it hurt a lot.”

This line-of-duty or command investigation was conducted by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which helped oversee the joint Marine Corps and Navy exercise.

The report reviews operational aspects — including the vehicle’s watertight integrity, the leadership and whether training protocols were followed — and is the one that recommends any necessary disciplinary action. A second report by the Naval Safety Center, likely to recommend changes to prevent future accidents, is still being completed but is not expected to be publicly released.

Water rushing in

For about 45 minutes, 16 Marines and a sailor with Battalion Landing Team 1/4 struggled in a life-and-death battle inside AAV #5 as it was losing power and rapidly taking on thousands of gallons of water. Inside the enclosed vehicle, the Marines and their corpsman sat stuffed together on a bench. The rising water whipped back and forth as the vehicle plunged ahead.

High surf conditions pummeled the 26-ton vehicle as its driver continued to push it toward the USS Somerset, a Navy transport dock that was engaged in an aviation exercise 5,700 yards offshore.

As more water filled the troop compartment and engine area, the vehicle began losing power and most of its systems began to fail. The vehicles’ crew — a rear crew chief, driver and vehicle commander — were left to yell and use hand signals.

As the water crept higher, the rear crewman had to push through the crowded, dark, rocking craft to tell the vehicle commander water had reached the deck plates. In standard AAV operating procedures, this is the point where troops typically would be ordered to prepare for evacuation — meaning they are told to shed their body armor and their rifles.

But that didn’t happen immediately. According to testimony in the report, the vehicle commander “thanked” the rear crewman for letting him know and the vehicle pressed on toward the ship.

As the water rose, the driver told investigators he saw the voltage drop but couldn’t let the vehicle commander know because of the failed communications. The vehicle’s transmission seized and water sprayed from the engine shutting down its electrical systems, including the hydraulic pumps there to remove excess water.

When the water reached boot height, the vehicle commander climbed on top of the AAV and desperately waved a blue-and-white flag known as the November flag. The flag signals an AAV is in peril of sinking.

Amidst the climbing sea swells, someone on the Somerset from another AAV crew reported seeing the flag. Two AAVs turned back to help. One was 400 meters away; the other was in front of the failing AAV and about 200 meters from the USS Somerset. As one got about 100 meters away, the vehicle commander on top of the AAV signaled a “possible troop transfer.” The sinking AAV was now only 6 inches above the waterline; typically the vehicle is only two-thirds covered by water.

Inside, the troops tried to get to a starboard side cargo hatch, but couldn’t see the handles because the emergency lighting system had failed. They used their cellphones for light.

At the same time, the vehicle commander was above on top of the AAV and straddled the hatch helping to pull it open.

He helped pulled out one Marine and the rear crewman help push more Marines through the hatch.

But as more tried to exit, they struggled against the whipping waves. Five of them were washed off the vehicle by a wave, which also poured more water in the open hatch. The vehicle’s nose rose up and then the armored transport quickly sank.

The AAV’s driver also made it to the surface.

What went wrong?

The problems started long before that day’s training exercise, the report details. The AAVs supplied from the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion had basically sat unused for a year. Mechanics reported them “operationally inoperable.”

Mechanics repaired them for “land-use” only. By May 26, they had been repaired sufficiently to be used in water training.

But the troops also weren’t trained up, Rudder said. Eight of the nine Marines who died had not been qualified to egress from a submerged vehicle. Other training qualifications weren’t met and the raid onto San Clemente Island was the first time all the AAVs in the platoon went into the open ocean together.

Key steps were also overlooked, investigators said, including standard operating procedures, just hours before the AAVs were to head to the USS Somerset. Of the 13 vehicles that had gone ashore for the training raid, six were grounded at the island, at least three for mechanical problems.

There were also no safety ships in the water. During amphibious operations, the Marines typically require two accompanying safety boats when six AAVs are in the water.

While many events contributed to the accident, the report determined a “key moment” was when the water was at ankle level inside the AAV and the vehicle commander didn’t order the evacuation “as required by the Standard Operating Procedures for AAV operation.”

“The vehicle commander was more focused on getting back to the ship,” the investigation officer concluded. “Although the vehicle commander did not realize the AAV was suffering a transmission failure, he waited too long to evacuate the embarked personnel. By the time he did, the vehicle was too low in the water and had turned sideways into the waves. When they opened the starboard-side cargo hatch, it exposed the AAV to direct intrusion of water.”

In a Thursday morning briefing by military experts who reviewed the report, one said the vehicle’s commander “had a tough choice to make. There was no safety boat available.” He was deciding between keeping his men on board or putting them into the open ocean that was cold and had high surf.

“He had recently come back from recruit duty and was not trained for his billet.”

The report says the Marines inside were standing on bench seats in preparation to evacuate when that order was given. But the force of the water rushing in from the wave surge knocked them off their feet.

“The overwhelming physical force experienced resulted in shock, disorientation and inadvertent physical response,” the investigation officer said. “It is unlikely the embarked personnel had time to react and the physical force overwhelmed them.”

The report says without the appropriate training, the infantry Marines likely didn’t realize the severity of their situation or knew what to do as the water level rose. The life vests were insufficiently buoyant, especially once a person was submerged in the water.

“Even when the water had risen waist-high, they still had on their helmets and weapons,” the investigating officer wrote. “They struggled to open hatches due to lack of training, the dark compartment and emergency lights not working.”

The report removed any blame from the Navy: stating all actions and decisions made by the USS Somerset were in keeping with established rules and “didn’t contribute to the sinking.”

Lawmakers review

The investigation’s release comes just as lawmakers on Capitol Hill met this week to discuss an increasing number of training accidents and fatalities across the armed services, especially when compared to deaths in combat.

A July report by the Congressional Research Service looked at active-duty military deaths between 2006 and 2018 and said 32% were the result of training accidents. During that same time period, 16% of service members were killed in action.

The Government Accountability Office, for a year now, has been looking into training deaths, with a focus on rollovers in the Army and the Marine Corps. Their report, expected for a May release, is expected to suggest remedies.

The House Armed Services Commission on Tuesday, March 23, held a subcommittee on readiness and listened to testimony from commanders representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps on the accidents and what actions might be taken to reduce them.

One is the rollout of the Marine Corps’ new Amphibious Combat Vehicle to replace the aging AAVs.

Camp Pendleton Marines started testing the vehicle last year and some already said it seems safer for troops. Still, lawmakers in the subcommittee meeting questioned how the hatches on the two vehicles differ and if evacuation from the ACV would be easier than from the AAV it is expected to replace by 2028.

The July training was the third accident with an AAV 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 Camp Pendleton. 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.

Knowing what happened

Juan Villanueva, of Riverside, is the father of Cesar Villanueva and was among the earliest families briefed by Marines this week. He, his son, Carlos and six other family members were present.

There was a lot of sadness and crying, he said. And, there was some anger — partly because he said the investigation felt “incomplete.”

Still, he said he was relieved to finally hear the details of exactly what happened after waiting so long.

“The boys did their job; they didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Because of the errors executed, the boys’ lives were lost, which could have all been preventable.”

Rudder, who was the final commander to sign off on the report, said in his written comments the investigation and ensuing actions are meant to prevent tragedies like this in the future.

He emphasized that amphibious operations are at the center of the “storied history and promising future of the Marine Corps,” as is participating in realistic training like the July 30 exercise.

“I extend my deepest sympathies to the families and friends,” he wrote. “These were outstanding young men and their loss is felt not just by the families, but also by scores of Marines and sailors with whom they served and on whom they left a lasting impression.

“These young men perished honorably in the line of duty and the U.S. Marine Corps is grateful for their service and seeks to honor their legacy.”


(c) 2021 The Orange County Register

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