Maintenance oversights, ambiguous training requirements and a failure to regularly perform pre-deployment evaluations likely contributed to the summer 2020 amphibious assault vehicle sinking that resulted in the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor.
The findings are part of an investigation conducted by Lt. Gen. Carl E. Mundy III into the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“The AAV mishap on July 30, 2020 was a tragic mishap stemming from a confluence of events, and this investigation into a segment of those events was conducted with their sacrifices in mind,” Mundy said in the investigation. Mundy led the investigation while he was the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command.
“Ultimately this investigation aims not to excuse or rationalize any decision or action but to prevent similar mishaps in the future,” Mundy said.
On the evening of July 30, 2020, a platoon of AAVs carrying a company of infantry Marines left San Clemente Island, California, on its way to the transport dock Somerset after completing a training raid.
The initial investigation into the sinking found that faulty maintenance of the vehicle included a loose transmission drain line that caused it to leak nearly all its oil.
While on San Clemente Island, the crew refilled the vehicle with oil and set off again, but the leak eventually caused the transmission to seize on the return trip. This kicked off a chain of events that ultimately led to the vehicle sinking.
As the vehicle sank, the AAV driver took one deep breath from the air bubble in his compartment and attempted to escape out the back, grabbing two other Marines on the way out.
One of those Marines died.
The Marines who died that day were Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, a 19-year-old rifleman from New Braunfels, Texas, Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, California, a rifleman. Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California, a rifleman. Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman. U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California, a hospital corpsman. Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman. Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 22, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman. Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman. Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California, a rifleman.
The initial investigation also found that a closed pool and ambiguous underwater evacuation orders meant that nearly all the infantry Marines in the vehicle did not have the required underwater egress training.emic, resulted in the deaths of nine service members.
The initial Marine Corps investigation found issues with the training that both the infantry Marines and the AAV crewman received, that the vehicles given to the MEU were poorly maintained and noted that the AAV platoon failed to go through a required predeployment evaluation, which likely would have caught the deficiencies and saved the lives of the Marines and sailor.
The initial investigation also found that a closed pool and ambiguous underwater evacuation orders meant that nearly all the infantry Marines in the vehicle that sank did not have the required underwater egress training.
The second Marine Corps investigation resulted in the firing of Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi from his position as Inspector General of the Marine Corps, because of his failures to ensure the Marines from 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, and 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion were properly trained before attaching to the MEU.
Castellvi was the commander of the 1st Marine Division when the training was supposed to have taken place.
After this investigation every Marine from Castellvi down through the chain of command has received some level of administrative discipline, Maj. Gen. Gregg P. Olson told reporters on Monday during a briefing about the investigation.
On the Navy side, an undisclosed number of sailors received some administrative discipline, though none were fired from positions of leadership, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander, Naval Surface Forces/Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said on Monday.
While the Marine Corps investigation found serious deficiencies and errors in judgement made by top leaders during the formation of the MEU, the Navy investigation mostly exposed flaws in the way the two services interacted during AAV operations.
The AAVs left the Somerset using two AAVs as safety boats, because the boats promised by the Somerset were not operational. That was within the standards at the time of the incident.
When the AAVs returned the platoon commander assumed the Navy would provide safety boats. That had been part of the original plan, but the Navy assumed the Marines would continue to use AAVs as safety boats.
With no safety boats in the water, when vehicle five started to sink, two AAVs attempted to come to its rescue. But one of the boats accidentally hit vehicle 5, causing it to go broadside into a wave and rapidly sink.
The AAV platoon weren’t the only Marines on the water that day missing training.
The initial investigation found that only 11 of the 13 service members embarked on the AAV had up-to-date swim qualifications, while the corpsman aboard, Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, may have never passed a swim qualification, his stepfather, Peter Vienna, previously told Marine Corps Times.
While only two Marines from BLT 1/4 had fully completed their underwater egress training, an issue covered up by ambiguous orders that seemed to allow for a relatively easy training to be done in place of the harder submerged vehicle egress trainer if that trainer was not working.
The Marine Corps already has committed to fixing that order to clarify the actual training requirements.
Mundy said 1/4′s battalion commander, along with the commander of the 1st Marine Regiment and the 1st Marine Division, all failed in ensuring that the company of grunts had successfully completed their training.
“However, (underwater egress) training alone is not a panacea. Waterborne training should incorporate not just elements of water survival and egress certification but also repetitive evacuation drills, which likely would have been of greater value in preventing this mishap,” Mundy said.
Though Mundy found faults with the infantry training that could have saved the lives of the nine service members killed in the accident, most of the blame seems to fall on 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion and its battalion commander Lt. Col. Keith Brenize.
The Marine Corps’ most recent investigation found that the maintenance within the 3rd AA Battalion had degraded from 2017 to 2019 based on inspections by the Marine Corps’ Field Supply and Maintenance Analysis Office or FSMAO.
Brenize took command of the 3rd AA Battalion June 1, 2018, according to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.
In 2019 the inspection, “assessed 3d AA Bn as non-compliant and specific findings included insufficient oversight by maintenance management officer, responsible officers, and commodity managers; ineffective internal inspections, and failure to follow up on identified discrepancies,” the investigation found.
The battalion was the only one in the 1st Marine Division to be found non-compliant and one of seven units in I Marine Expeditionary Force to fail the inspection.
Findings from a 2018 and 2020 Logistics Readiness Evaluation showed a similar decline in the 3rd AA Battalion.
That document included, “ordnance training (not conducting required shop safety classes), maintenance training (not conducting required clerk or supervisor training), and quality control (assigned personnel not documenting final inspections),” according to the investigation.
In additions to the failures a reorganization of the battalion put the AAVs into the battalion’s headquarters and service company, a company that did not have an assigned maintenance officer or master sergeant maintenance chief, with the idea that the battalion level officer and chief would provide oversight.
“The 3d AA Bn battalion maintenance officer stated he did not think he needed to provide maintenance oversight to H&S Company since he was the battalion maintenance officer, not the company maintenance officer,” the recent investigation found.
Despite the battalion’s maintenance woes, it boasted a readiness rate of 84 percent between January 2020 and April 2020, higher than the Marine Corps average of 71 percent over the same period.
But that readiness number did not translate to working vehicles for the MEU.
The Marine Corps’ initial investigation found that the vehicles slated for the deployment had come from the administrative deadline lot, while 12 of the initial 13 vehicles originally slated for the MEU were non-operational on April 20.
The initial investigation based their findings on witness statements.
Citing the maintenance records, the second investigation disputes the claims that the vehicles came from the deadline lot and found that only five of the 13 vehicles were non-operational on April 20.
The second investigation noted that 11 of the 14 vehicles ultimately sent to the MEU were non-operational “at various points,” between April 20, 2020, and July 20, 2020.
“While I don’t discount eyewitness testimony, we also can’t discount the vehicle by vehicle, record by record, maintenance action by maintenance action that appears in the systems record,” Olson told reporters.
Despite having nearly 200 vehicles to chose from, with 84 percent supposedly being operational, the battalion still sent faulty vehicles to the deployment.
Before the MEU, the platoon’s leadership tried to get new vehicles but were rebuffed by the battalion, according to one of the witnesses’ statements.
“I was told that they didn’t have any other vehicles to give to us and those were the vehicles we were going to get no matter what,” the platoons maintenance chief said in the initial investigation.
The second investigation did not answer why only those vehicles would do.
“Frankly, I don’t know and the investigation officer… made particular note of that, that nothing should have prevented the battalion from sourcing other vehicles to meet this requirement,” Olson told reporters.
The original Marine Corps investigation found that the 3rd AA Battalion failed to conduct a Marine Corps combat readiness evaluation, commonly known as a MCCRE.
The exercise is meant to push units through realistic training, ensuring that they have the skills and equipment needed for a deployment.
According to 1st Marine Division orders the responsibility for evaluating units would fall to the battalion commander. For the 3rd AA Battalion that was Brenize.
However, both Brenize and the AAV platoon commander told investigators that they did not know a MCCRE was required for a platoon sized unit to deploy, believing those were only required for companies.
“Orders and authoritative documents, from HQMC down to and including the battalion level, plainly direct that the major elements forming a MEU will conduct a MCCRE prior to composite,” Mundy said in the investigation.
“Some of these documents are ambiguous regarding the requirements for units below the battalion and squadron levels, but I believe the spirit of these orders is clear in that all units deploying with a MEU should receive some type of formal evaluation by competent authority,” he added.
The training records reviewed by the second investigation showed that Brenize conducted MCCREs for companies deploying, but they seem to show they were never conducted on platoons heading to a MEU.
The lack of MCCREs for AAV platoons seemed to be the norm in the Marine Corps, despite orders requiring them.
“The reports in (Marine Corps Training Information Management System) do not have any data that AA platoons in the Marine Corps conducted MCCREs,” the investigation noted.
Instead of preparing for a deployment, the unit seemed to prioritize Native Fury, a joint exercise that took place in the United Arab Emirates, which allowed the Marines to train on the ground-based functions of the AAV but did not consist of any waterborne training.
The issue with prioritizing the exercise in the Middle East was compounded when flight cancellations in the wake of COVID-19 left half the platoon in Camp Pendleton, California during the exercise.
When the first half that were actually able to participate in Native Fury returned, they were immediately put into a two-week restriction of movement period to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, but it also prevented them from assisting with the necessary maintenance on the vehicles they were issued in the weeks immediately before they joined the MEU.
“I believe this was a critical decision that later contributed to the AA platoon’s performance on July 30, 2020,” Mundy said in the investigation.
“The NF20 deployment did not permit the platoon to conduct adequate pre-composite waterborne training together as a small unit and potentially with Company B, or to conduct thorough inspections prior to the JLTI,” Mundy added
Rose tinted glasses
The investigation found that Brenize and Castellvi had “ample personal communication,” but noted that Brenize routinely failed to inform the commander about the reality of his battalion.
Brenize, “did not convey the significant risks in his command related to the AA platoon, specifically its declining materiel readiness and lack of predeployment (waterborne) training opportunities and MCCRE or other formal evaluation,” Mundy said.
Instead, the reports were, “generally positive and contained very few indications that would have alerted the CG or his staff to personnel, training, and materiel readiness concerns,” Mundy added.
Brenize left the battalion June 19, 2020, just 11 days before the fatal accident.
He is currently under Training and Education Command and the administrative actions against him are still ongoing, Olson told reporters.
Despite the rosy picture Castellvi received from Brenize, the general still failed to properly oversee the battalion, Mundy said.
For his failures Castellvi was fired from his role as Inspector General of the Marine Corps and personally counseled by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, a step that will typically bar him from promotion or ever leading Marines again.
Mundy noted that part of Castellvi’s failures likely derived to a systemic issue in the Marine Corps that caused the division to go without an assistant commander since 2015, a problem found in all wing and division commands, according to the investigation.
“If staffed with a (general officer), the 1st MARDIV (assistant division commander) could serve as an intermediate level of supervision and oversight of the lieutenant colonel commanders as well as other GO duties delegated from the CG, 1st MARDIV,” Mundy said.
“The normal pace of activities in the Division, Wing, and MLG is challenging enough without the demands created by a global pandemic,” Mundy said.
“Leadership capacity mattered in this mishap. I therefore recommend the Marine Corps assign brigadier generals or postcommand colonels to deputy positions in each Division and Wing,” he added.