The Marine Corps’ top general on Wednesday spoke for the first time publicly about the investigations into a training accident last summer in which eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank to the ocean floor, announcing he is convening an outside board to look into the state of the Corps’ amphibious operations.
Since the deadly accident, all the ship-to-shore amphibious operations remain suspended.
The Marine Corps’ ability to maneuver between water and land is a core function, especially given expectations by military leaders that the United States will face more threats in the future coming out of the Indo Pacific instead of the mountains and deserts of the Middle East seen the last few decades.
The board will be led by retired Gen. Thomas Waldhauser and made up of retired amphibious operation experts.
“This is what we need to learn as an institution to make sure that in the years to come, we know how to do what is our core competency,” Berger said during a conversation from the Pentagon with military reporters where he discussed the events of the deadly training accident and his thoughts on what happened. “Twenty and 30 years ago, we did a lot of amphibious operations and there was a lot of shared knowledge, and that pool has shrunk. Our bench is thinner than I’m comfortable and we have to expand that. And, we have to do it thoughtfully.”
While “not an excuse,” Berger said the past 20 years spent fighting in the deserts have taken Marines away from their watery roots. He has been planning for a future working more closely again with the Navy.
Of the deadly training accident July 30 off San Clemente island, Berger said, “It’s very clear to me that the sinking of this Amtrac and the loss of those Marines and that sailor both were preventable.”
Three of the Marines who died were from Southern California.
“You have to start with the families; they’re the ones we think about and the loss they had,” he said.
“When we lose a service member, the best way we can honor that is to do everything humanly possible to try to prevent something like that from happening again. We can never promise that it won’t happen again, but we can certainly do all that we can to limit the likelihood that ever happens again.”
“Accountability is with me and I accept that,” Berger added.
The first of two investigations began last summer has been publicly released and Berger said he’s read it and the second by the Naval Safety Center several times.
“Together, they certainly provide sufficient detail to answer the question of what directly caused that Amtrac to sink and those Marines and that sailor to lose their lives,” he said. “My assessment is they answer that. But there were unanswered questions about the actions leading up to that; what can we learn that might prevent a similar tragedy in the future.”
On April 2, the Marine Corps broadened the scope of investigation to look at how preparations for deployment might have contributed to the training accident — the nine Marines who died were part of Battalion Landing Team 1/4, which was attached to the Camp Pendleton-based 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit being readied for deployment last September.
The investigation answered “who made what decisions and who knew what” prior to the MEU’s formation, Berger said.
“I have that investigation,” he said. “The next steps are for me to discuss my thoughts about what happened with the acting secretary of the Navy, Secretary (Thomas) Harker, which I will do pretty quickly.”
Berger said he could not provide a timeline for any final decisions that may be made on accountability. He said at the conclusion of his discussions with Harker, any information on actions to come will be shared with the families and Congress.
The Navy has also launched its own investigation, which is expected to be completed in 30 days.
Berger also addressed in his conversation Wednesday the Corps’ culture of safety, saying he will focus specifically on risk during training.
That’s been a topic recently in House Armed Service subcommittee hearings where California representatives John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, both called for increased safety in military training.
“This is not easy because a safety culture taken to extremes is going to produce a bunch of leaders who won’t take risks on the battlefield,” Berger said. “But, how we look at risk in training, we need to adjust. There have been some positive steps in how we manage training, how we share information in safety. But, we clearly have to improve how we make better risk decisions in training.”
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