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Families of Marines and sailor who died in training accident are learning more about what happened

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

The families of eight Marines and a sailor who died aboard a seafaring vehicle during a training accident off San Clemente Island are being notified this week that a final report investigating the deadly accident is complete.

The investigation is one of two looking at what caused the 26-ton vehicle to sink during the July 30 exercise.

The amphibious assault vehicle, known simply as an AAV, was part of a Camp Pendleton-based landing team on pre-deployment training with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit when it took on more water than it could handle as it headed back to the USS Somerset, a Navy transport dock waiting just offshore.

This line-of-duty or command investigation was conducted by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which was helping oversee the joint Marine Corps and Navy exercise. The training accident is being called the worst amphibious assault vehicle accident in the Marine Corp’s history.

The report reviews operational aspects — including the vehicle’s watertight integrity, the leadership and whether training protocols were followed — and is the one that would recommend any necessary disciplinary action. A second report by the Naval Safety Center is inspecting the vehicle and examines the causes for the sinking. That report will also recommend corrective actions to prevent future tragedies. A final completion date for that report has not been announced.

After the accident, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger suspended all water-based training for the AAVs and ordered an inspection of all 800 vehicles in the Marine Corps fleet. The AAVs — many built in the 1970s — have been retrofitted and repaired multiple times. The vehicles still are not being used from any open water training.

The report has taken eight months to complete.

After a training raid with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 13 AAVs and their crews left the northwest beaches of the San Clemente Island to return to the USS Somerset. The AAV carrying 16 service members began taking on water after traveling a mile out toward the waiting ship.

An AAV typically doesn’t travel off the sand before a standard “pre-water ops” checklist is completed, which would include inspections by a launch team to make sure the vehicle is watertight and that anything mechanical and essential to staying afloat is 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 was overtaken by water and sank.

Seven Marines got out and were rescued by another AAV crew. One, Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, was pronounced dead on the scene, while two other Marines were airlifted to the hospital.

Seven other Marines and a Navy corpsman — three of whom were from Southern California — did not escape and were later recovered when the vehicle was located on the ocean floor and raised on Aug. 7, a week after the accident.

Onboard and killed when the AAV sank were Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, a rifleman; Lance Cpl. Marco A. “Andy” Barranco, 21, of Montebello, a rifleman; Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman; U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, a hospital corpsman; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 22, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman; and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, a rifleman.

Family members say they have agonized over what the final conclusions will reveal and they are hopeful the information provided to them is transparent.

Many of the men who died were marking personal milestones. Baltierra, the youngest infantry Marine, died on the one-year anniversary of his enlistment. Rodd was a new dad. Sweetwood was just a day shy of his 19th birthday when the accident occurred.

“It has been a living nightmare,” Christiana Sweetwood, Chase Sweetwood’s mother, said recently in describing her life waiting for the report’s release.

“They took not just my kid, but they took my life from me in every aspect,” she said. “I don’t just want answers from the report. I want justice.

“We’ve all gotten a lot of ‘I’m sorrys.’ I don’t want anyone else to tell me they’re sorry,” she said. “We need answers.”

A solace during the months of waiting that the families have had has been each other, several said.

Sweetwood and the other mothers have been in close contact since the accident.

Recently, Sweetwood, Aleta Bath, Evan Bath’s mother, Lupita Garcia, Andy Barranco’s mother, and Nancy Vienna, Christopher Gnem’s mother, met in Orange County with plans to go to Camp Pendleton and see the cross erected for Gnem on a hill high above the base — the first of the ones that will be added. The visit was extremely emotional, Sweetwood said. They got together to grieve, share stories of their sons’ lives and even try to laugh together, Sweetwood said.

“We cry on the phone, we laugh and we talk about how it’s not fair that they’re not here anymore,” she said. “They know exactly what I’m feeling.”

“I wait for a report that I know will be awful,” she said.

Aleta Bath, Evan Bath’s mother, agreed she was “afraid for it to come out.”

“It’s the government and the military,” she said. “They can’t tell us everything.”

Bath described going to Dover Air Force Base where the caskets were flown after the Marines’ bodies were recovered from the ocean’s floor.

“We never had closure, we didn’t get to see or touch our children,” she said. “The mortuary had the pictures. I had to look at these pictures and say, ‘This is my son.'”

Like the others, she wants answers no matter how hard it will be.

“They said, ‘You are our family now — no man left behind,'” she said. “I want to know. This is the truth, this is what happened to our children. I want the respect because I respected the military. I want them to make me feel like I’m family.”

As the months passed, families members said they wondered when they would hear something. All they knew is that at some point another car of uniformed Marines would drive up in front of their homes and they would hear the familiar firm knock on the door.

Carlos Baltierra, Bryan’s father, has been a support to many of the families — especially some of those who don’t speak English. He’s also helped others navigate through some of the military processes.

He vividly recalls the first firm knock when three Marine Corps officers arrived hours after the AAV sank.

Baltierra, who oversees call centers for multiple companies, was sitting in his makeshift office at the dining room. He was on a conference call with bosses around the world.

“It was like in the movies, three well-dressed military people walked across our front yard,” he said. “There was a firm knock and then the doorbell rang. I saw them and my heart just dropped.”

Now, he awaits the next visit.

“I want to make sure they are fully transparent — don’t lie,” he said. “Be honest and say, ‘You failed.'”


(c) 2021 The Orange County Register

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