The Marine Corps’ top leaders will speak before a Congressional committee on Monday, May 3, addressing lawmakers’ concern about a “lack of safety” and an uptick in training accidents.
The appearance was prompted by a recently released investigation into the most deadly accident the Corps has had training with the amphibious assault vehicles that have been in use since the 1970s.
With the number of military training accidents and fatalities outpacing combat deaths in recent years, lawmakers have been holding hearings on the apparent trend since 2019. California representatives John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who both sit on the House Armed Services Committee, asked for Monday’s review of the details in the latest AAV accident.
In the July 30 accident, nine men died when the AAV they were riding in during a pre-deployment training off San Clemente Island took on water and sank. Seven others survived.
Calling the accident preventable, the investigation found contributing to it were mechanical failures and training and leadership failures during the exercise and in the months leading up as the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit tried to keep up with the schedule demands for a September deployment amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not the only fatal accident,” said Garamendi, who chairs the readiness subcommittee. “There is clear evidence that safety is not a priority in the Marine Corps. We’ll pursue that at this hearing and in subsequent hearings with the Marine Corps.”
A recent report by the Congressional Research Service, which looked at active-duty military deaths in all branches between 2006 and 2018, said 32% were the result of training accidents. During that same time period, 16% of service members were killed in action.
For Camp Pendleton, the July accident was the third in a decade with an AAV. In 2017, 14 Marines and a corpsman were severely burned when their AAV hit an exposed gas line during a training exercise on base. In 2011, a Marine sergeant died after a stuck accelerator drove an AAV underwater in the Del Mar boat basin.
A day after the July 30 accident, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger suspended the use of AAVs in all water operations across the Corps. On April 9, he allowed AAVs to train in the water again, but has not permitted the training between ships and shore like what was being practiced during the July accident.
Along with the release of the investigation report in March, the Marine Corps issued a series of recommendations to protect against lapses in standard operating procedures and are rewriting training handbooks as well as reviewing safety procedures.
The rise in accidents – across all military branches over the past several years – has also prompted a one-year study into training deaths by the Government Accountability Office. That report, due out any time, is expected to suggest remedies.
“In every accident, there is some reason why it happened,” Garamendi said. “These training accidents are repeats of earlier failures. There is pressure on unit commanders to get these exercises done. There is the pressure at every level from unit commanders up the chain, to check the box.”
Garamendi had called for Berger to testify, but Marine Corps officials said Friday, April 30, that he will not attend. Instead, Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant, and Maj. Gen. Gregg Olsen, assistant deputy commandant, will respond.
Garamendi said Monday’s inquiry will be focused on the AAV tragedy, which he feels raises fundamental questions concerning a lack of a culture of safety in the Marine Corps. He wants it to address what can be done to change that, how legislation might help and why a senior leader, responsible for ensuring training readiness for the MEU the AAV platoon was part of, is now in a position of oversight in the Pentagon.
Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, commander of the 1st Marine Division at the time of the July 30 accident, is now serving as inspector general of the Marine Corps. That position is charged with overseeing investigations into misconduct, readiness concerns and other institutional problems.
“I don’t quite understand how someone gets elevated to the position of an inspector general after being in charge of that particular disaster,” Speier said during a subcommittee hearing on April 15.
“I know both Jackie and I are interested in getting that answer,” Garamendi said on Friday.
No administrative or disciplinary action has been taken against Castellvi.
In the March 25 investigation report on the AAV’s sinking, Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, the report’s senior officer in charge, noted that Castellvi had responsibilities to ensure the Marines were fully trained by the time components of the expeditionary unit were assembled on April 20.
But, he concluded Castellvi “was not responsible for any failure that occurred after the MEU composite date. And he was not the on-scene commander during the mishap.”
“Accordingly, I have decided not to take administrative or disciplinary action,” Rudder wrote in the report.
Marine Corps officials said Castellvi was promoted to his position because he was “the best qualified and suited for the assignment” after leaving command of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton in September. During the change-of-command ceremony, Castellvi was praised for “exceptional performance” as he oversaw 24,000 Marines and sailors for 27 months – three months longer than planned because of the coronavirus shutdown.
While the two lawmakers say the Marines are not focused enough on safety, Marines officials at the Pentagon said there are many procedures in place that make sure training exercises are done safely.
“Every Marine is taught to consider safety as a necessary part of operational planning and execution,” Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine Corps spokesman, said. “These lessons begin during initial training and will be refined and broadened when Marines attend follow-on training as they progress through the ranks.
“Safety consideration extends to every phase of training exercises: pre-, during, and post-events,” he said.
Pre-exercise analyses are done before every training to make sure Marines are equipped to handle their equipment and vehicles and to be aware of any surrounding terrain hazards, he said. While an exercise is underway, safety officers and the chain of command are there to enforce safety measures. After each exercise, Marines are prompted to report any hazards, he said.
“Marines are empowered down to the lowest level to be diligent and un-intimidated in their hazard and mishap reporting,” Wood said. “As an organization, we reiterate the importance of ‘If you see something, say something.’”
But Garamendi said more needs to be done.
His solution also includes a safety officer who reviews the exercise and assures that risks are minimal.
“You can’t have 100% assurances that it will be safe – stuff happens,” he said. “But there needs to be someone who blows the whistle and says we can’t go forward. The safety officer has to report to an individual with authority to start or stop the exercise.”
On Monday, two fathers of the men who died will also weigh in on their safety concerns.
But Christiana Sweetwood, mother of Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood, 18, wonders why more parents can’t participate – Garamendi said the process typically limits each side to a five-minute testimony.
“This is a disgrace,” she said. “Our tax dollars pay for everything they do. And, we can’t talk or ask questions?”
She said she doesn’t expect much to come from Monday’s testimony, especially not until there are changes to the Feres rule – a legal doctrine that prevents people who are injured in military service from suing the federal government.
“I’m hoping it catches the right person’s attention and they help us abolish it,” she said. “I hope they try to hold these men accountable and put pressure on them to get answers for our boys. But, we have a very long road to go still.”