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Marine, Navy amphibious group returns from deployment amid probe into fatal sinking last summer

Undersea Rescue Command deploys the Sibitzky Remotely Operated Vehicle. (Lt. Curtis Khol/U.S. Navy/TNS)

After a seven-month deployment to the Middle East and Africa, the more than 5,000 Marines and sailors of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit began disembarking at Camp Pendleton Friday, the Marines said in a statement.

The MEU includes the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship Makin Island and amphibious transport docks Somerset and San Diego. The sailors and Marines deployed in November.

The unit supported the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Somalia as well as operations in Iraq and Syria. After its combat support and training missions, the unit sailed to Alaska this month to participate in a joint training exercise — meaning the unit went from the hot, desert climes of the Persian Gulf to the cold waters of the Arctic.

“The 15th MEU and Makin Island ARG deployed during an unprecedented pandemic and demonstrated the ability of the Navy and Marine Corps team to successfully and safely execute operations in a COVID-19 environment,” said Col. Fridrik Fridriksson, the commanding officer of the MEU, in a statement. “I am so incredibly proud of the professionalism, toughness and mental resiliency demonstrated by our Marines and Sailors.”

The months preceding the deployment were marred by disaster.

The unit was training for deployment near San Clemente Island in July when a Marine assault amphibious vehicle suffered a series of catastrophic mechanical failures and sank, killing nine young service members. A Marine Corps investigation found the unit’s AAVs were in poor repair and should not have been in the water that day. Additionally, the Marines and sailors of the battalion landing team were not properly trained in waterborne evacuations.

Col. Christopher Bronzi, the commanding officer of the 15th MEU, was removed from command in March as a result of that investigation. His relief followed that of Lt. Col. Michael Regner, who was fired as commander of Battalion Landing Team 1/4 last year.

The Marines opened another investigation in April to focus on the formation of the 15th MEU after outcry from family members of some service members killed in the accident. Marine Expeditionary Units consist of Marines from across different commands, such as infantry, aviation and supply who come together to train and deploy. The investigation is examining how training and material readiness impacted the unit’s formation, the Marines said.

Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, the former commanding general of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division in charge of forming the MEU, was suspended from his new job as the Corps’ inspector general this month pending the results of the latest investigation.

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