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Marines begin new investigation of armored vehicle sinking that killed nine troops

Marines with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drive assault amphibious vehicles at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 14, 2020.

BRENDAN MULLIN/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: April 6, 2021

WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps has launched a new investigation into an amphibious task force at the center of an amphibious assault vehicle sinking at sea last year that killed nine U.S. troops, service officials said, opening the possibility for additional discipline for officers involved.

A board of officers will review the formation of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, of Camp Pendleton, Calif., with Lt. Gen. Carl Mundy serving as board president, the service said in a statement.

"The investigation will inquire into the formation of the 15th MEU; training and material readiness impacting the formation of the 15th MEU; and higher headquarters oversight of the 15th MEU," the service said. "The goal is to ensure the Marine Corps is doing everything possible to prevent this type of mishap from happening again."

The new investigation follows an outcry from the relatives of some of the service members killed in the sinking, in which an armored vehicle designed to carry Marines from Navy ships to shore rapidly took on water and sank on July 30 during a training exercise off the coast of California. The families have questioned why no general was held responsible, after the initial investigation found numerous failures by Marine officers, including a lack of safety boats, slipshod maintenance, gaps in required training and complacency.

"Why are these men allowed to be in control of people's lives period anymore?" Christiana Sweetwood of Danville, Va., whose son was among those killed, said in an interview last week. "No more. That's the angry part of me speaking. Are these generals getting off and these lower-level guys taking the blame?"

Several officers have been removed from their job or disciplined, including Col. Christopher Bronzi, the commanding officer of the 15th MEU, and Lt. Col. Michael Regner, who commanded 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, a unit of more than 1,000 troops that reported to Bronzi and was a part of his task force.

But the investigation released on March 26 raised the possibility that others also may be culpable. They include Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, the former commanding general of 1st Marine Division, who oversaw the training of the Marines in the platoon of amphibious assault vehicles involved.

Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, found that Castellvi "bears some responsibility" because the Marines involved did not receive a required assessment known as a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation before they were reassigned to the 15th MEU.

Rudder opted not to discipline Castellvi, noting that the Marines involved already had been transferred under Bronzi. Castellvi is now the service's inspector general.

The investigation also cited the former commander of 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion. The commander, who was not named in the report the service released, did not ensure that the Marines involved in the AAV platoon received the required combat readiness evaluation and that the vehicles were fully operational before they were assigned to the 15th MEU to prepare for a deployment, the investigation found.

Rudder also wrote in his assessment that the coronavirus pandemic played a role in the disaster.

"In my opinion, this distracted personnel from the attention to detail required to form a MEU," Rudder wrote. "However, to the extent any such distractions occurred they should not have prevented the units involved from accomplishing their respective missions."

The dead included 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, Texas; Cpl. Wesley Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas; Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Ore.; Cpl. Cesar Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, Calif.

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