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In this July 31, 2020, photo, the U.S. flag is seen lowered to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, Calif., after a seafaring assault vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California.
In this July 31, 2020, photo, the U.S. flag is seen lowered to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, Calif., after a seafaring assault vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California. (Paul Bersebach/AP)

(Tribune News Service) — After hearing testimony Friday from the former battalion commander of the eight Marines and one sailor killed when their amphibious vehicle sank beneath the waves of the Pacific in July 2020, a panel of three Marine colonels will determine whether he should be held responsible.

The results of the officer’s board of inquiry — and those of several others planned for coming weeks — will be announced when they have all concluded, according to the Camp Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force.

Lt. Col. Michael Regner, the former commanding officer of Battalion Team 1/4, was removed from command in the months following the fatal accident. A Marine Corps investigation later found he bore part of the blame for a series of training and planning missteps that resulted in the sinking and deaths.

Regner’s board of inquiry began Tuesday at Camp Pendleton — the home of 1/4. Over two days of witness testimony, the board heard from the Marine colonel who led the investigation into the sinking, the corporal who drove the vehicle and parents of two of those killed.

They also heard from colonels who spoke highly of Regner and — over a marathon four hours of testimony Friday — from Regner himself.

Unlike a court-martial, which is a legal proceeding for criminal matters, a board of inquiry is administrative in nature. A panel of three officers will review the evidence and witness testimony and make two determinations — the second depending on the first. First, they must decide whether Regner’s performance as commanding officer was “substandard.” Second, if they say it was, they must decide whether he will remain in the Marines or be forced out.

Military lawyers representing the government told the panelists that the finding of the investigations is clear: Regner’s performance as commanding officer of 1/4 was “substandard,” and that contributed to the tragedy.

Regner’s attorneys argued that the former battalion commander did everything in his power to prepare his Marines for operations that day and that a combination of bad information from his subordinates and indifference from above is what set the stage for the fatal mission.

Regner has been in the Marines more than 19 years and is six months away from being eligible for a military retirement, according to his military attorney. Among senior officers who wrote glowing letters recommending Regner’s retention was Lt. Gen. Karsten S. Heckl, the previous commanding general of I MEF.

On the morning of July 30, 2020, Marines from 1/4 left the amphibious transport dock Somerset aboard 13 assault amphibious vehicles and made their way to San Clemente Island. The unit was training to deploy with the newly-formed 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

It was the first time the Marines of 1/4 had conducted waterborne operations in the Vietnam War-era vehicles.

While on the island, some AAVs had mechanical problems, including AAV No. 5 — the one that later sank. This delayed the Marines’ return to the Somerset. Nine AAVs eventually began the return trip, and four remained behind. One almost immediately began taking on water and turned back to the island.

The other eight — including AAV No. 5 — pressed on toward the Somerset. That AAV’s transmission failed when it was more than halfway to the ship and it began taking on water. Without its transmission operating, it could not pump the water out. The armored AAV sank beneath hundreds of feet of water.

Three investigations, one from the Navy and two from the Marines, found that the AAVs given to 1/4 by the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion were in poor mechanical condition.

“They were turning over garbage to 1/4,” lead investigator Col. Fridrik Fridriksson told the board Thursday.

Further, the Marines of 1/4 were not fully swim qualified nor had they completed training that might have helped them escape the crippled, sinking vehicle. Those training programs, investigators said, were mandatory.

Fridriksson told the board that Regner failed to ensure his Marines were qualified in swimming, qualified in underwater vehicle evacuation and to ensure the AAVs his Marines would ride in were in good material condition.

Cpl. Dallas Truxal, who was driving the AAV that day, said he only survived because he knew his way around the vehicle.

“If I didn’t,” he said, “myself and two other Marines’ names would be on that list — we’d be dead.”

The AAV was one of the best the platoon had, Truxal told the board. “It was the best track through 90 percent of our work-up,” Truxal said. “She was the G.O.A.T.”

The parents of two of those killed testified Thursday about the accident’s effect well outside the gates of the base.

Peter Ostrovsky, father of 21-year-old Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, told the board his family was shocked by the “top-down incompetence” of his son’s leaders when they were first briefed on the investigation.

“(The investigation) showed a lack of duty of care for our son and his squadmates,” Ostrovsky said, adding he was “bewildered how vehicles in such poor condition could be part of America’s response force.”

Nancy Vienna, the mother of 22-year-old Navy Corpsman Christopher “Bobby” Gnem, testified through tears about how her son’s unexpected death has affected her. “My heart hurts when I think about how scared he was when the AAV went down,” she said. “I wasn’t there for him.”

Peter Vienna, Gnem’s father, told the board he didn’t understand why Regner or any Marine leaders are pushing back against accountability.

“Are they pushing back just so they can retire at a higher rank?” he said. “We seek just a sliver of accountability.”

On Friday, Regner testified in detail about the events that led up to the formation of the 15th MEU. According to him, the challenges of the pandemic, a border mission and some of the AAV platoon being sent to a Middle East exercise in the months ahead stressed the normal training cycle of a battalion landing team.

Regner said he had been tracking the AAVs and had a list of them and their mechanical issues by serial number. Before the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion turned the vehicles over to him, he said he went over the list line-by-line with the 3rd Tracks’ commanding officer, Lt. Col. Keith Brenize.

Brenize had a separate board of inquiry last month in Quantico, Va. The results have not been released.

Regner said the company commander misled him as to whether the Marines of Bravo Company were fully swim qualified. Among the findings of the investigation was that Marines had trained only in a shallow water evacuation trainer but not the underwater trainer because it was down for maintenance.

At the time, it was I MEF policy to train in the shallow-water trainer if the underwater pool wasn’t available — a policy that has changed since the accident.

Regner said that after the sinking he went to his Marines on the Somerset and that the ship was “depressed and nervous” after the accident.

“They don’t have the scar tissue, they don’t have the calluses to handle these situations,” said Regner, who led Marines in combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Regner teared up when asked about the day he was relieved of command and told he would be joining the staff at I MEF instead.

“I was raised in the Marine Corps,” said Regner, the son of retired Maj. Gen. Michael Regner.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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