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Congress seeks answers from Marines in wake of report on fatal disaster at sea

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: April 2, 2021

A disaster at sea that killed nine Marines and a Navy sailor last summer will face more scrutiny after the release of the service's investigative findings, with Congress taking interest and families involved pressing the Marine Corps for answers.

The service members, all between 18 and 23 years old, died after a 35-year-old armored vehicle meant to carry Marines from ship to shore sank to the ocean floor off the coast of California on July 30. A Marine Corps investigation released last week found that the situation was preventable, with shoddy maintenance, a lack of safety boats, insufficient training and complacency all playing a role.

Marine Corps officials and staff members in the House discussed the matter this week, said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on readiness. What they shared, coupled with the details in the investigation, made clear to him that the service has a "systemic, cultural safety problem" that also includes fatal vehicle rollovers and aircraft collisions in training over the last few years, he said.

"It cuts across the entire Corps, it is outrageous, it is deadly, and it has to change," Garamendi said in an interview.

The congressman said that committee members will be briefed by Marine Corps officials about its safety issues next week, and that he will seek participation from Gen. David H. Berger, the service's commandant, at an open hearing in May.

"I will invite the commandant to testify about the culture of safety — or, rather, the lack of a safety culture in the Marine Corps, and demand answers to how the Marine Corps plans to deal with this," Garamendi said.

The recent disasters include a 2018 collision between an F/A-18 jet and a KC-130 plane off the coast of Japan that killed six Marines and a 2016 accident in which two CH-53E helicopters crashed into each other off the coast of Hawaii, killing 12.

In both cases, training problems were exposed. In the Japan case, an initial service investigation blamed the fighter jet pilot for being unqualified, but a second investigation overturned the results and said there were systemic problems in his squadron that senior Marine officers had overlooked.

Senior service officials have acknowledged mistakes in the disaster and taken steps to discipline several officers. Among them is Col. Christopher Bronzi, who was removed last week as commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit after deploying with the unit last fall despite the mishap.

Before the deployment, the Marine Corps removed Lt. Col. Michael Regner, the commander of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, an infantry unit that oversaw the service members who were killed, and a more junior company commander who reported to Regner and Bronzi.

But there has been less transparency about other Marines involved.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, of San Diego, has "taken appropriate administrative disciplinary action against seven other personnel whose failures contributed to the mishap," said Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine Corps spokesman. The former commander of 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, which supplied several decrepit amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) involved in the disaster, also could face discipline, Wood said.

The Marine Corps has not detailed what those other punishments included, or if anyone will be court-martialed. In the investigation report, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, recommended that several Marines receive "administrative or disciplinary action" for dereliction in the performance of duties, including the former commander of 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, the company commander removed from his job last fall, and the platoon commander of the AAVs involved.

A senior officer involved in the case, Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, also "bears some responsibility" in the disaster for not ensuring that the Marines received all necessary training, Rudder found.

But Castellvi was not disciplined because the Marines involved had been transferred to serve under Bronzi, and Bronzi was the senior Marine officer on hand. Castellvi has since become the Marine Corps inspector general. Wood said that he was chosen because he was the best qualified officer for the job.

The investigation also raised the possibility that the coronavirus pandemic complicated completing all required training. But officers overseeing the unit were still expected to do so.

The dead included Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, Calif.; Pfc. Evan A. 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 S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Tex; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Tex.; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Ore.; Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, Calif.

Seven Marines in the vehicle, including the vehicle commander, survived.

Christiana Sweetwood, of Danville, Va., whose son was just short of turning 19 when he died, said in an interview that she is concerned that some of the lower-ranking Marines who have been disciplined may have been "thrown under the bus," while more senior officers who gave them direction have avoided accountability.

"Why are these men allowed to be in control of people's lives period anymore? No more. That's the angry part of me speaking," she said. "Are these generals getting off and these lower-level guys taking the blame?"

Sweetwood said several of the families involved have begun talking to the families of Marines killed in other training accidents about the Feres Doctrine, which bars the military from being sued in cases of documented negligence.

"It's like they have no accountability," Sweetwood said. "None of these people do. How is that possible?"