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Navy censures 5 over fatal amphibious vehicle sinking off San Diego

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro issued letters of censure to the five military commanders Marine and Navy investigations found to bear some responsibility for the conditions that contributed to the July 2020 fatal sinking of an assault amphibious vehicle off the San Diego coast.

Eight Marines and a sailor were killed when their AAV broke down and sank during training with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit while returning to the amphibious transport dock Somerset from San Clemente Island.

Those censured include retired Marine Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, who was the three-star general in command of the Camp Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force at the time.

Navy and Marine Corps leaders from the 15th MEU — MEU commander Col. Christopher Bronzi, Amphibious Ready Group commander Navy Capt. Stewart Bateshansky and the commanding officer of the Somerset, Capt. John Kurtz — were also censured.

Lt. Col. Keith Brenize, the former commander of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion — which supplied the AAVs to the MEU — was the fifth officer censured.

Two investigations by the Marine Corps and one by the Navy found multiple failures at every level of military planning and operations ahead of the events of July 30, 2020. The AAVs — commonly called “amtracks” or “tracks” by Marines — sent to the MEU were in such shoddy condition that one investigator, Marine Col. Fridrick Fridricksson, called them “garbage” at a January Camp Pendleton board of inquiry.

The Marines on board the amtrack weren’t fully swim qualified nor had they had the recommended underwater escape training, one investigation found.

On board the Somerset, there was confusion as to who would supply safety boats during the amtrack’s return to the ship, which resulted in no safety boats being in the water when the AAV called for help.

The impacts of COVID-19 and the Marines’ mission at the U.S.-Mexico border had stretched the Corps thin, with commanders shifting personnel and training schedules, an investigation into the formation of the 15th MEU found.

In the censures, Del Toro noted each officers’ roles in these failures. He cited Brenize’s failure to properly train and certify Marines assigned to the AAV platoon and provide vehicles in good mechanical condition.

“Accountability for these failures rests with you,” Del Toro wrote to Brenize.

Del Toro cites Bronzi similarly, writing that as MEU commander, he was also accountable for those failures.

“You are censured for failing to identify and mitigate the training and material readiness failures that resulted in this mishap,” Del Toro wrote.

Bateshansky and Kurtz, the two Navy captains, were censured for failing to mitigate risks and properly supervise AAV operations, respectively.

And Osterman, as I MEF commander in charge of all the Marine units involved, was cited by Del Toro for failing to recognize and mitigate the risk of placing under-trained Marines in shoddy amtracks.

“You … did not fully appreciate the potential negative impact of COVID-related challenges on the 15th MEU as your subordinate commanders adjusted training and modified schedules in their attempt to meet mission requirements,” Del Toro wrote to Osterman. “While no singe act of decision led to this tragedy, ultimate accountability rests with you.”

The five officers are not the only ones facing administrative action in the fallout from the sinking. Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, the commander of the 1st Marine Division at the time of the incident, was removed from his job as Marine Corps inspector general in 2021.

Other officers, including the commanders of the battalion, company and platoon, each faced boards of inquiry at Camp Pendleton earlier this year. All were retained by the Marines, the civilian attorney representing the platoon commander told the Union-Tribune in February.

The censures will be added to the officers’ military service records and cannot be appealed, according to Navy regulations. While not officially career-ending, the letters serve as a reprimand and would be considered when the officers are up for promotion.

Letters of censure have been issued in recent high-profile cases where other criminal or administrative punishments were not, such as the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald collision and the so-called Fat Leonard bribery scandal.



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