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Marine commander fired over 9 troops’ deaths in July amphibious vehicle sinking

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Christopher J. Bronzi gives remarks while standing in front of an Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), Jan. 17, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Anabel Abreu Rodriguez)
March 23, 2021

Col. Christopher Bronzi, the U.S. Marine Corps commander in charge of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), was relieved of his command on Tuesday in the middle of a deployment after a loss of confidence eight months after eight marines and a Navy sailor under his command drowned in a training accident.

According to a Marine statement shared with USNI News, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, relieved Bronzi “due to a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to command, following completion of the command investigation into the assault amphibious vehicle mishap which occurred off the coast of San Clemente Island, Calif., on July 30, 2020.”

Nine troops died during the incident involving the assault amphibious vehicle (AAV). The AAV began to take on water during a training operation off the coast of San Clemente Island. It was the deadliest AAV training incident on record for the Marine Corps.

Among those killed was Cpls. Wesley A. Rodd, 23 Cesar A. Villanueva, 21; Lance Cpls. Marco A. Barranco, 21, Guillermo S. Perez, 19, and Chase D. Sweetwood, 19; Pfcs. Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, Evan A. Bath, 19, and Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21; and Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22.

Bronzi is the second senior leader to be fired because of the AAV accident. Lt. Col. Michael Regner, the commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment for the 15th MEU, was relieved of his command in October 2020.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, ordered Regner due to a “loss of trust and confidence in his ability to command as a result of the assault amphibious vehicle mishap.” Heckl reached the decision based on what he described as “a substantial amount of information and data” but did not specify what role Regner’s leadership played in the incident.

Bronzi was deployed at the time in command of the 15th MEU. The 15th MEU is currently embarked aboard ships of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). The Makin Island ARG is currently deployed in the Middle East and recently concluded theater amphibious combat rehearsal (TACR) training at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

Rudder named Col. Fridrik Fridriksson in charge of the 15th MEU, taking Bronzi’s place. Fridriksson previously commanded 11th MEU and recently joined the currently deployed 15th MEU in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

The Marine Corps has used the AAV since the 1970s and, according to the Orange County Register, many of the aging vehicles require 15 hours of maintenance for every hour of service. Parts of the vehicles are often no longer manufactured, forcing crews to scrap older vehicles for spare parts.

The Marines have recently begun trials to replace the AAV with the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), developed by BAE Systems.