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AAVs given OK by Marines to go back into the water after deadly accident last summer

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

Marines at Camp Pendleton were back in the ocean this week training in amphibious assault vehicles for the first time since nine men died when one of the troop carriers sank on July 30 during a training exercise off of San Clemente Island.

The Marine Corps’ fleet of the seafaring vehicles was suspended from all water training immediately following the deadly accident.

Using the armored vehicles to transport troops from a ship to shore and back — what the AAV that sank last summer was doing — is still prohibited and the directive issued April 9 allowing some training with the vehicles comes with a checklist of tasks that have to be completed to confirm training, inspections and other preparation protocols are met, said Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine Corps spokesman. It also details the higher levels of leadership that have to sign off on the completion and requires the use of safety boats.

Starting on Monday, April 12, Marines from Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Amphibian Assault Battalion began in the classroom.

The Marines were briefed on updates to standard operating procedures for the vehicle and were required to pass a knowledge test before being authorized to participate in water operations.

On April 13, the Marines trained on land-based water recovery and troop transfer. After demonstrating proficiency in rehearsals on land, the Marines drove the vehicles in the Del Mar boat basin.

There the Marines continued to train in water recovery and troop transfers — without troops. On Friday, after showing they were proficient in the exercises, Marines drove into the open ocean in the tracked, armored vehicles.

The five-day training regimen results from the findings of an investigation into the July 30 accident and refining of standard operating procedures for AAV use. Marine Corps officials have said other recommendations have been issued to protect against lapses in procedures and training handbooks are being rewritten.

The eight-month investigation ended with Marine officials saying the tragedy could have been prevented and a mix of factors contributed, including mechanical problems in the Corp’s aging fleet of AAVs, leadership failures, a lack of training and the demands of a schedule to keep up with plans for a September deployment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As the AAV headed from training on San Clemente Island to the USS Somerset three miles off shore, it took on more water than it could handle and sank to the ocean floor. Seven of the 16 people aboard the AAV were able to escape the craft, one man died at the scene. Eight men were trapped as the vehicle sank.

In the amphibious assault vehicle when it sank were riflemen Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona; 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; Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside and U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton.

Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, was found unconscious in the water on the scene and later pronounced dead.

As part of the investigation’s resulting recommendations, fleetwide testing was done on all 800 AAVs to determine the vehicles’ watertight integrity.

This week’s training at Camp Pendleton included a review of lessons learned from the July tragedy as well as from previous AAV accidents.

The requirements now laid out will also pertain to operating the Marines Corps’ new Amphibious Combat Vehicle, currently also being tested by the battalion. The vehicle is expected to replace the AAVs by 2028.

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