Commanders were overloaded by pandemic, border mission before deadly amphibious vehicle sinking, investigation finds
WASHINGTON – A new investigation into the drowning of nine U.S. service members last year says that senior commanders responsible for ensuring troops’ safety failed to keep up with mounting demands imposed on them due to the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of war with Iran and former president Donald Trump’s militarization of the southern border.
Released Wednesday, the report does not excuse those Marine Corps officials whose lack of oversight was faulted previously in the sinking of a 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle during predeployment training off the California coast, but it scrutinizes what a senior military leader determined were other contributing factors. Lt. Gen. Carl Mundy III said that it “would be a mistake to discount or overlook” the demands on commanders, their staffs and rank-and-file troops ahead of the disaster on July 30, 2020.
“The claims on their time and attention surfaced in a number of interviews with several senior officers who described the conditions during this period as second only to their experience in combat,” Mundy wrote.
Numerous Marine officers were removed from their jobs after the incident, including Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, who at the time was commanding general of 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Marine Corps investigators previously found that the deaths were “preventable,” with complacency, shoddy maintenance and inspections, and inadequate training all leading to the tragedy.
The results of this latest Marine Corps investigation were released along with the findings of a parallel Navy inquiry that uncovered communication problems between the services on the day of the disaster, in which the armored ship-to-shore transport craft took on water and sank off the coast of San Clemente Island while returning to the USS Somerset.
The Navy’s investigator, Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney, found that the Somerset’s commanding officer at the time, Navy Capt. Dave Kurtz, “did not fully understand communication pathways” between the ship and Marine vehicles involved in the operation. But Navy officials said the Somerset responded promptly when the situation’s severity became clear, and that the communication problems did not cause the disaster.
Kurtz did not respond to a request for comment.
No Navy personnel were removed from their job as a result of the incident, but a senior commander, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, said in a conference call with reporters that some have been subject to administrative action. He declined to disclose specifics.
“This tragedy should never have occurred,” Kitchener said. “We will not let the lives be lost in vain. We have learned from this, and we will permanently improve the way we plan and execute amphibious operations.”
The Navy and Marine Corps promised to make changes, including mandating the use of safety boats capable of responding quickly to a landing craft in distress. On the morning of the disaster, the Navy’s safety boats were unavailable due to maintenance issues, prompting the Marine Corps to designate other armored landing craft for that assignment, investigators found. One collided with the sinking vehicle while attempting a rescue, prompting it to roll over and sink rapidly.
Christiana Sweetwood, whose son was among the Marines killed, said in a phone interview Wednesday that she received a thousands of pages in investigative documents from the military on Monday and was still sorting through them. She noted pointedly that the Navy did not fire anyone and that the pandemic appeared to have distracted Marine Corps commanders from taking required safety precautions.
“I feel like so much at this point has been thrown at us,” she said. “It’s almost like everyone is pointing fingers at each other.”
Sweetwood said, however, that she found some solace in the Navy’s promise to require safety boats in the future.
“I’m trying to find my blessings wherever they are,” she said. “Those safety boats, they are fast.”
The disaster occurred during a period in which military travel was restricted, reducing training options. The Marines involved were with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit a task force that operates from naval ships at sea.
One Marine officer interviewed as part of the investigation said that senior commanders knew “we are not in a normal place” in terms of completing training, and that “anybody could call a time out or drive reconsideration of whether we were to do something.”
But the Marine Corps, which prides itself on being ready to respond to crises on short notice, provided a unit of amphibious assault vehicles for the deployment that had not completed required training, including for how to escape a sinking vehicle, investigators found.
Mundy wrote in his report that “associated reverberations” from a coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that became crippled while deployed early in the pandemic, “compressed and complicated available training opportunities” for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Mundy wrote that the Marines had a number of other “non-standard” missions at the time that strained resources and time, including assignments at the U.S.-Mexico border in support of immigration officials and to provide security for the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship that was deployed off the California coast to assist civilian hospitals overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.
The Marines also were “planning for major combat operations due to heightened tensions with Iran in January 2020,” Mundy wrote, referring to a period that included the U.S. killing an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, with a drone strike and Iran responding with a ballistic missile attack that injured dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq a few days later.
Killed in the drowning incident were Pfc. Bryan Baltierra, 18, of Corona, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Marco Barranco, 21, of Montebello, Calif.; Pfc. Evan Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wis.; Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, Calif.; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Ore.; Lance Cpl. Guillermo Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Tex; Cpl. Wesley Rodd, 23, of Harris, Tex.; Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Ore.; Cpl. Cesar Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, Calif.