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Navy captain censured over deadly AAV sinking tapped for aircraft carrier command

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro at Naval Base Point Loma Harbor Drive Annex. (Andrew Dyer/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

A Navy selection board is recommending a ship captain censured over his failure to control amphibious vehicle operations in a deadly incident off the San Diego coast two years ago be given command of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Capt. John Kurtz was the commanding officer of the amphibious transport dock Somerset in July 2020 when eight Marines and a sailor were killed when their assault amphibious vehicle, or AAV, sank near San Clemente Island. The AAV was returning to the Somerset after a day of training operations on the island when it began taking on water and broke down, stranding the 16 aboard far from the closest rescue vehicle, another AAV.

An investigation found that the Somerset failed to launch safety boats during the vehicle’s return trip to the Somerset and that Kurtz failed to properly control amphibious operations during the transit.

The investigation concluded that the issues on the Somerset did not directly contribute to the deaths.

In June, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro issued a letter of censure to Kurtz and four other Navy and Marine Corps commanders.

In October, the Navy convened an annual command screening board to recommend officers for major commands. Kurtz was among those recommended to command a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Board deliberations are not releasable, said Capt. Reann Mommsen, a Navy spokesperson, but Kurtz’ letter of censure was included in the records reviewed by the board before issuing its recommendations.

Mommsen did not say when a final decision will be made.

The board’s recommendations were first reported Tuesday by

If selected, Kurtz would take command during fiscal 2024, which begins October 2023.

Other officers censured included the retired three-star general in charge of I Marine Expeditionary Force in 2020, Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman. The commanders of the Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Amphibious Ready Group that the Somerset was assigned to were also censured, as was the former commander of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion.

Marine Corps and Navy investigations found several discrepancies in the training of troops ahead of the formation of the MEU in 2020 and that the vehicles were in poor mechanical condition. Families of those killed have sought accountability from the Marines and Navy, sparking an additional Marine Corps investigation in 2021.

Several Marine officers were ordered to face boards of inquiry this year, which could have ended their careers. However, those officers were retained by the Corps — even those whose job performance was deemed to be “substandard” by those boards.

The amphibious vehicle model involved in the sinking was pulled from waterborne operations last year. Plans to deploy the Marine Corps’ replacement for the AAV — the larger Amphibious Combat Vehicle — for the first time this year were scrapped after two floundered in high surf off Camp Pendleton in July.

The Marine unit involved in the high-surf incident was the same one involved in the 2020 AAV sinking. The incident is under investigation.


© 2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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