Training tragedy hits home at Camp Lejeune
The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C.
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Military officials late Wednesday released the identities of the seven Camp Lejeune service members killed in an explosion in Nevada, but questions still remain as to what caused the training mishap late Monday.
Naval Criminal Investigative Services is investigating why a mortar round unexpectedly exploded at Hawthorne Army Depot Monday at approximately 9:55 p.m. during mountain warfare training killing seven Marines and injuring eight other service members, one of which was a Navy corpsman.
On Wednesday evening 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, commanding officer Lt. Col. Andrew J. McNulty issued a statement regarding the incident.
"A great tragedy occurred to the Marine Corps and the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, family on March 18, 2013," McNulty said. "We lost seven Marines in a training accident where it appears that a 60mm mortar system failed to function as designed. The Marines' and Sailors' response to the incident to provide first aid for our injured was nothing short of heroic. There were numerous acts of selflessness as our injured cared for each other and directed corpsmen to care for more severely injured before being treated themselves. The Marines and Sailors on scene did everything possible to care for and save those affected by the mortar system malfunction."
Of the injured, the Corpsman is very seriously injured, five others are seriously injured and two Marines have been treated and released, according to a Wednesday press release from Camp Lejeune.
Former and active duty Marines familiar with the equipment have offered The Daily News their take on the situation.
“First, the round could have prematurely exploded before it is supposed to,” said a former Camp Lejeune Marine and school-trained mortarman who asked not to be identified. “Second, the mortar tube could have failed causing a catastrophic failure when the mortar round struck the firing pin at the bottom of the tube causing the tube to explode — basically becoming a big pipe bomb. Third, the round could have been put into the tube incorrectly. This could have either been a round placed in the tube backwards or a round placed on top of another round.”
“The cause of why the round exploded in the tube could be from a variety of reasons,” said the former Marine. “The thing is that 10 feet away, people would have been hurt much less. But with mortars, everyone is literally inches to a couple of feet away from the mortar. An explosion like that is pretty much the worst case scenario.”
An active-duty Camp Lejeune Marine and mortarman, who also requested to remain anonymous, said there are additional reasons the tube could have exploded.
“It could be faulty round, faulty tube, or they could of had a cook-off,” said the active-duty Marine. A cook-off refers to a round exploding prematurely due to excessive heat. “If they went above the max rate of fire and the tube overheated it could have caused the round to go off prematurely.”
This isn’t the first incident where Lejeune Marines were injured in explosions aboard Army installations.
On March 14, 2011, eight Marines and two sailors from Golf Battery, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines were conducting an annual two-week artillery exercise known as Rolling Thunder aboard Fort Bragg when they were injured by an apparent in-bore explosion of a M77A2 Howitzer, an artillery cannon. The service members were sent to nearby medical centers with shrapnel wounds and lacerations.
Two of the Marines were hospitalized for nearly one month following blast related injuries.
Camp Lejeune officials said they are unsure if there will be a local memorial service for the troops killed in the Monday explosion.
“The unit is still out there and I think they were toward the end of their training,” said Capt. Binford Strickland, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force public affairs officer. “I know they had or will have a local memorial service out there, however, I’m not aware of anything that’s happening here yet.”
The active-duty Marine, who has fired more than 400 rounds in Afghanistan, feels as though these are unique incidents are far from the norm.
“In my four plus years of experience I have never heard of in incident to this magnitude,” said the active-duty Marine. “I have personally fired over 1,000 rounds and have never had an incident even resembling this one, nor have I ever heard of one. A mortar system is only as good and reliable as you make it. They need to be inspected regularly for wear and damage. Same goes for a mortar crew. You are only as good and efficient as you train to be.”
Well organized chaos are the only words to describe what it’s like in a mortar pit firing rounds, said the active-duty Marine.
“I am no more afraid than I was a week ago about doing my job but this is definitely an eye opener.”