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Navy punishes 5 officers over 2020 AAV sinking that killed 9

Marines riding Assault Amphibious Vehicles, head toward the shore during 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s MEU Exercise, June 28, 2018. (Official Marine Corps Photo by Gunnery Sgt. T. T. Parish)
June 14, 2022

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Rio filed Secretarial Letters of Censure (SLOC) last week against three U.S. Marine Corps officers and two U.S. Navy officers over the fatal sinking of a Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) in 2020 that lead to the deaths of eight Marines and a Navy Hospital Corpsman. The Navy first revealed the actions on Monday.

The SLOC letters to the five officers sent June 10 were released by the Navy on Monday. The five officers include retired Marine Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman – who had been the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force; Marine Col. Christopher Bronzi – commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (15th MEU); Navy Capt. Stewart Bateshansky – commander of the Amphibious Task Force (CATF); Navy Capt. John Kurtz – commanding officer of the USS Somerset (LPD 25); and Marine Lt. Col. Keith Brenize – commanding officer of the 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion.

“When leaders’ actions or inactions result in the loss of life or capital resources, the senior leadership of the Department of the Navy has a responsibility to determine the root cause and hold those accountable,” Del Toro said in a June 2 service-wide message sent ahead of the letters. The message accompanied a press statement announcing the censure actions against the five officers.

“Following a thorough review of the command investigations into the AAV sinking, these officers received SLOCs due to their inadequate leadership and execution of their oversight duties,” Del Toro added in his message.

In the July 30, 2020 incident, an AAV began to rapidly take on water as it hit rough seas during a training exercise. Investigations later concluded that insufficient training, poor communications, and major mechanical issues with the AAV led to the fatal accident. Nearly all of the Marines on board the vehicle lacked the proper underwater egress training to get out of a sinking AAV.

Among those killed were Cpls. Wesley A. Rodd, 23 and 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.

In his letter to Osterman, Del Toro wrote, “You failed to recognize and alleviate risks associated with conducting waterborne operations and to ensure material readiness of the AAVS assigned to the 15th MEU. You also did not fully appreciate the potential negative impact of COVID-related challenges on the 15th MEU as your subordinate commanders adjusted training and modified schedules in their attempt to meet mission requirements. While no single act or decision led to this tragedy, ultimate accountability rests with you.”

Del Toro’s letter to Bateshansky credits him with reducing the complexity of the AAV training on the day the vehicle sank and notes that none of the USS Somerset’s actions caused the sinking of the AAV, but those investigations “ultimately found that there were gaps and seams in the planning of the exercise at issue as well as its execution, all of which were within your span of control.”

Del Toro similarly told Kurtz that, as commanding officer of the USS Somerset, his ship did not contribute to the accident, but as the responsible primary control officer for the AAV operations he “failed to exercise positive control over the AAVs during their shore-to-ship transit” and did not adequately address safety protocols during mission briefings.

Del Toro told Brenize that as commanding officer of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Brigade, he was primarily responsible for ensuring the training of the Marines and the operational state of the AAVs. “Required training was not completed, and the AAVs assigned 10 the 15th MEU were in a degraded state of readiness. Accountability for these failures rests with you.”

Del Toro similarly told Bronzi that as commanding officer of the 15th MEU, he was also responsible for ensuring the proper training of the Marines and the proper maintenance of the AAVs. “Critical safety measures were not implemented during the mishap, in violation of applicable directives. Accountability for these failures rests with you.”