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As the rising water inside the amphibious assault vehicle reached the generator belt, one crew member heard a “loud screeching noise” marking the loss of engine power for the hulking vehicle then floating off the California coast. 

The bilge pumps, which were already not pumping water out of the sinking vehicle quickly enough, were now running even slower on battery power.

Then the engine compartment flooded and water began spraying from all sides of the engine panel. Water was now at bench seat level, one of the three crew members told the vehicle commander.

It was dark inside the vehicle for its passengers, 12 infantry Marines and a Navy corpsman, because the electrical lights were off and there were no chemical lights to mark the hatch handles. The service members had to use their cell phones as flashlights.

The commander eventually ordered everyone to “drop their stuff” as crew members struggled with the handle to open the starboard side cargo hatch.  

Then a wave crashed over the vehicle and flooded the troop compartment.

“I remember saying ‘watch out’ and that the Marine who was closest to the turret got pushed into the water,” the vehicle commander later told investigators, recalling repeated orders of “get out” to a Marine trapped inside. “Then everything starts to run together in my mind. I remember the Marines who are still in the back of the vehicle just looking at me. I remember that I got knocked off by a wave, and I remember swimming over to one of the other tracks which I think was track 14. I climbed up and looked back and could not see any sign of Track 5.”

The 36-year-old vehicle had sunk. Eight Marines and one sailor perished in the deadliest training accident involving an amphibious assault vehicle in Marine Corps history.

A subsequent investigation that was recently publicly released found that the accident was “preventable,” but it placed the blame squarely on the service members’ chain of command rather than underlying institutional problems. This story is based on the investigation’s findings as well as conversations with Marine veterans, a member of Congress, Marine Corps officials, and family members of one of the Marines killed.

“There’s clearly a systemic problem with the United States Marine Corps: They do not have a culture of safety,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. “And throughout the entire Department of Defense, there is insufficient attention to the maintenance of the vehicles and the airplanes.”

He cited problems with military vehicle rollovers and airplane crashes as examples of the military’s continuing maintenance and readiness problems. And when asked how these issues can be fixed, Garamendi was blunt: “The solution is to fire the generals,” he said.

‘Death traps’

The events of July 30, 2020, off the coast of San Clemente Island, California, have put an uncomfortable spotlight on the Marine Corps’ fleet of aging amphibious assault vehicles, which are older than the Marines and sailors whose lives depend on the vehicles’ ability to stay afloat.

“For the most part, and mainly because of my experience, they are death traps and need to be updated if not completely eradicated from the Marine Corps,” Tagen Schmidt, a Marine veteran who was badly burned when his AAV caught fire in 2017, told Business Insider last year.

The command investigation into the training accident found the Marine Corps’ own readiness standards before the sinking “did not accurately account for long-term deterioration in AAV [amphibious assault vehicle] readiness across the U.S. Marine Corps over time.”

Following the deadly accident, the Marine Corps inspected all of its amphibious assault vehicles — and most failed, the investigation found.

“The leading causes of failure during these inspections were plenum leakage failures, inoperable Emergency Egress Lighting Systems (EELS), and bilge pump discrepancies,” according to the investigation.

An amphibious assault vehicle (AAV), assigned to Combat Assault Battalion AAV Company, splashes into the water from the well deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) during an amphibious assault as part of Blue Chromite. (U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay)

The Marine Corps’ fleet of amphibious assault vehicles is plagued by a chronic lack of funding for parts, said a Marine veteran who served as a vehicle commander. Even the simplest items are on backorders for months.

Crew members often have to cannibalize broken vehicles for parts to complete repairs on other vehicles, the former vehicle commander said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. 

During his time in the Marine Corps, vehicles would take part in water operations if one or two of their four bilge pumps were not working even though that is considered unsafe and violates standard operating procedures, the former vehicle commander said.

Overall, amphibious assault vehicles are outdated and unreliable, he said, adding the Marine Corps should have retired them from service a decade ago.

The investigation into the July 30 accident found that the AAVs assigned to the platoon before the exercise were in “horrible conditions.”

In fact, two other vehicles broke down during the exercise. One was unable to move after the bearing inside the road wheel failed and the parts needed to fix it were unavailable at the time. That vehicle was supposed to serve as the safety boat for the exercise.

Another vehicle became unable to maneuver while trying to return to the amphibious transport dock USS Somerset and had to be towed.

Investigators determined that a “sequence of mechanical failures” rather than a single problem led to the amphibious assault vehicle sinking on July 30.

After the accident, the Marine Corps found that the vehicle had several openings that allowed water to pour in, such as a missing headlight connector on the vehicle’s port side.

“A post-mishap water intrusion test was conducted on [the vehicle] and determined that a significant amount of water was leaking through the intake and exhaust plenum grills,” the investigation found. “Water leakage was minimal from the port and starboard cargo hatches. A significant amount of water leaked through the missing headlight connector on the front bow into the engine compartment. There was also a minor leak on the number two (2) port side road arm assembly to hull area, a minor leak in the number four (4) port torsion bar anchor area and minor leaks in the port and starboard midship seals.”

Investigators also determined that the vehicle’s transmission had failed while it was in the water due to an oil leak caused by a loose drain plug. The vehicle lost all if its momentum and its engine went idle.  

“The forward hydraulic bilge pump would not have pumped out water due to the low engine speed,” the investigation found.

Based on the recommendations from the investigation, the Marine Corps is in the process of implementing 54 actions to ensure the safety of Marines and sailors, said Capt. Andrew Wood, a spokesman for the service.

“The AAV is a safe vehicle and a viable platform for amphibious operations,” Wood said. “As with all combat systems and equipment, strict compliance with maintenance standards is an essential prerequisite to safe and effective operation.

“The AAV has been upgraded several times over the years incorporating capability improvements along with safety enhancements that have included improved plenum hinge safety, Emergency Egress Lighting System, improved Fire Suppression System, replaced mid-ship bearing seal, and improved throttle linkage.”

After the accident, the Marine Corps ordered all amphibious assault vehicle units to conduct inspections with new criteria for hull watertight integrity, emergency lighting, and bilge pump functionality, he said.

“The majority of inspections are complete, with the remaining ongoing, but no AAV will return to waterborne operations without completing the inspections and making all corrective actions required,” Wood said.

But as the Congressional Research Service noted in a report last year, the Marine Corps has claimed for years that its current fleet of amphibious vehicles have become “increasingly difficult to operate, maintain, and sustain.”

“As weapons technology and threat capabilities have evolved since the early 1970s, the AAV — despite upgrades — is viewed as having capabilities shortfalls in the areas of water and land mobility performance, lethality, protection, and network capability,” the report said. “The AAV’s two-mile ship-to-shore range is viewed by many as a significant survivability issue not only for the vehicle itself but also for naval amphibious forces.”

Marines from the Amphibious Combat Vehicle new equipment training team complete an operator course in the vehicle. (U.S. Marine Corps / Ashley Calingo.)

That’s why the Marine Corps has started fielding the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, which has wheels instead of tracks and is eventually intended to replace the current fleet of amphibious vehicles.

One amphibious assault platoon has already been fielded Amphibious Combat Vehicles and more of the vehicles are expected to reach Marines this spring, Wood said.

“The ACV has several hull-design improvements compared to the AAV, which increase ACV safety during water operations,” Wood said.  “Overall, these improvements reduce the risk of water ingress into the vehicle crew and power train compartments. With that said, amphibious operations in combat vehicles will always carry inherent risks, which must be addressed primarily through proper training and sound leadership.”

Different spanks for different ranks

The Marines and sailors who died were failed by a chain of command that sent them on a mission without any safety boats or sufficient rest, investigators found.

Of the nine who died, eight had not completed the necessary training for how to get out of a submerged vehicle. Only one of the service members who was inside the vehicle when it sank made it to the surface.

Moreover, the sea was rougher than expected and “may have exceeded the no-go decision criteria briefed for the training event,” according to the investigation.

The last sea state assessment had been conducted about four hours before the vehicles left San Clemente Island to return to the USS Somerset.

In the aftermath of the accident, at least two officers were fired: Col. Christopher Bronzi, formerly head of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit; and Lt. Col. Michael J. Regner, formerly commander of 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

But like the Defense Department’s inquiry into the 2017 Niger ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead, the command investigation into the July 30 accident places considerable blame on subordinates rather than the most senior commanders.

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi, who led the 1st Marine Division at the time, was not punished despite the head of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific finding that he “bears some responsibility” for the fact that the amphibious assault vehicle platoon had not completed a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation (MCCRE) before the accident, a requirement for units before they can deploy that would have brought in two outside experts to evaluate the platoon’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Although the failure of the AAV Platoon to conduct a MCCRE was not a causal factor in the mishap, a MCCRE may have exposed the AAV Platoon’s deficiencies in training and readiness identified in the investigation,” Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder wrote in his endorsement of the investigation.

Castellvi was also responsible for making sure that all members of the platoon had completed training for how to get out of a submerged vehicle before they transferred to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Rudder determined.

“CG, 1st MarDiv bears some responsibility for the failure to execute these tasks,” Rudder found.

However, Rudder also wrote that Bronzi and Regner were also responsible for making sure that the platoon had completed all of their training for how to escape from a sinking vehicle. Castellvi was also not responsible for failures after the platoon became part of the 15th MEU.

“Accordingly, I have decided not to take administrative or disciplinary action with respect to the former CG, 1st MarDiv,” Rudder wrote, perhaps departing from the Marine Corps’ tradition of holding commanders accountable for their subordinates’ failings, such as when the two-star general in charge of the 2nd Marine Division was censured in 2007 for not ensuring that his commanders investigated the killings of Iraqi civilians at Haditha.

Castellvi is currently serving as the Marine Corps inspector general. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment for this story.

Investigators assigned blame for the deadly accident to lower ranking Marines, such as the commander of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, who failed to make sure the platoon’s amphibious assault vehicles were in good working condition.

The commander, whose name was redacted from the publicly-released version of the investigation, knew that the vehicles had not been operational for a long time and were in poor shape, but he left it up to the platoon to repair them without the necessary resources, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, wrote in his endorsement of the investigation’s findings.

“He had a responsibility to position his AAV platoon for success by ensuring they had the training and equipment they required for a complex mission deployed at sea for several months,” Heckl wrote. “His leadership caused inexcusable stressors upon that platoon which set them up for failure.”

Yet the platoon’s maintenance chief told investigators that there wasn’t enough time to do the proper maintenance on the amphibious vehicles.

“We got our gear set and then a week and a half later we were going out into the field,” the maintenance chief said. “We came back, did maintenance, and then two weeks later we were going out to the field. That coupled with how much training we needed to do on top of the maintenance made things difficult.”

In March, the maintenance chief learned that half of the amphibious vehicles his unit was getting had been scheduled to be totally refurbished, he said in his witness statement.

All of this was happening as other members of the platoon were taking part in an exercise in the Middle East, he said. Eventually, the platoon got seven amphibious vehicles, six of which had to be towed at the time.

The vehicles needed to be ready by April 20. Even though the platoon did not have enough personnel to get the vehicles ready in time, the maintenance chief was told “that they didn’t have any other vehicles to give us and those were the vehicles we were going to get no matter what,” he said.

The platoon was able to get “minimal support from Battalion maintenance” and money from the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion but no one would help the platoon with the welding that needed to be done, the maintenance chief said.

“Requesting welding support was like pulling teeth and we went back and forth on it,” he said.

Pfc. David Lee, amphibious assault vehicle driver, Charlie Company, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, and native of San Clemente, Calif., drives an amphibious assault vehicle toward their objective during a nighttime beach landing on Aug. 25, 2013.
(U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. James Gulliver)

Marine Corps officials have also singled out the vehicle commander for focusing on getting back to the ship rather than the need to get his troops outside of the sinking vehicle.

The investigation found that the vehicle commander had not followed standard operating procedures by waiting far too long before ordering the service members inside the vehicle to evacuate.

“By the time he did, the vehicle was too low in the water, had turned sideways into the waves, and when they opened the starboard side cargo hatch it exposed [the vehicle] to the direct intrusion of water,” according to the investigation.

The vehicle commander, whose name was also redacted from publicly released documents, told investigators that when he was first informed that there was water inside the troop compartment, he tried contacting other vehicles but discovered that his radio was not working.

When he was later told that the water was getting higher, the vehicle commander told a crew member to stay calm and said they had to get back to the ship. At the time, he thought the water was coming from ocean waves.

The vehicle commander began to wave the November flag to signal distress, but it took between 15 and 20 minutes for it to be noticed.

“I then got on the radio and said, ‘any track any track this is Track 5 … I’m going to need a troop transfer now,’” the vehicle commander said in his witness statement. But his radio was not transmitting.

Eventually, another amphibious assault vehicle came to their aid and the vehicle commander told the service members inside to get ready to evacuate.

At that point the vehicle commander turned to a crew member and asked if things were going well.

“He said yes, but that he thought we just lost power,” the vehicle commander recalled. “The pitch of the engine had changed noticeably, so I asked him to put it in water tracks and use the vehicle’s spinning tracks as propulsion, which he did. 

The Marines inside were confused about whether they should get out of their body armor. After two of them asked what to do, the vehicle commander said “drop everything.”

That is when the wave slammed into the vehicle, tossing the vehicle commander overboard.

“I felt like I was in control, no one was panicking, the vehicle wasn’t filling up with water in a rush or anything,” the vehicle commander recalled of the situation, which didn’t appear dire until that point. “I felt like I had complete control of everything. It was just that one swell that did it at the very end.”

‘To pin this on any individual person would be scapegoating’

Top Marine Corps leaders disagree about what the vehicle commander could have done better under the circumstances.

Heckl was unsparing in his criticism of the vehicle commander, whom he blamed for the deaths of the nine service members.

“Ultimately, this entire mishap could have been averted and lives saved if the vehicle commander had followed SOPs [standard operating procedures] and ordered the embarked personnel to take off their gear and evacuate the mishap AAV (Track 5/Serial Number 523519) at the appropriate time,” Heckl wrote. “Troop evacuation should have been ordered no later than the time the water level reached boot ankle level, and personnel should have already been ordered to take off their gear when water reached deck plate level.”

“Each of the other failures of training, maintenance, safety checks, deviations from SOPs, and poor leadership contributed to the tragic mishap in its own respective manner, and each of these failures must be addressed going forward,” he continued, “However, the vehicle commander’s failure to evacuate personnel at the appropriate time was the ultimate tragic failure which resulted in the loss of life and injury.”

However, Rudder noted that the standard operating procedures for amphibious assault vehicles do not say what to do when a vehicle is slowly sinking in rough seas with no safety boats in the water.

The platoon commander, whose name was also redacted from the investigation, had assumed that the USS Somerset would provide safety boats but no one coordinated with the ship, the investigation found. Although the Somerset had a safety boat available, it was not requested before the vehicles began heading back to the ship.

All of that meant that the service members aboard the sinking vehicle had nowhere to go other than into the rough ocean until another vehicle came along and tried to help.

The vehicle commander’s might have made a different decision about when to evacuate if help had arrived when the water inside was still at boot ankle level, Rudder wrote.

A U.S. Marine with Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, holds the portrait of Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, during a memorial service at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Aug. 21, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck.)

“It is impossible to establish for certain that a safety boat in the water during the mishap would have prevented the loss of life, but a safety boat likely would have responded more quickly than the approximately 45 minutes it took for the mishap AAV to sink,” Rudder wrote.

“Considering the mishap AAV commander was waving the November flag for approximately 20 minutes, it is likely safety boat crews could have observed the distress signal sooner, responded more quickly, and been better able to facilitate troop egress and transfer.”

Marine veteran Nate Eckman, who once had to evacuate a sinking amphibious assault vehicle himself, said it is unfair to blame one person for the deadly accident because the investigation found the service members were simply not trained and prepared for such an advanced exercise.

“To pin this on any individual person would be scapegoating and it seems, based off the summaries of this 2,000-page report that the Marines have produced, this was just an imperfect storm,” Eckman said.

The Marine Corps also appears to be unclear on how many service members can safely fit inside an amphibious assault vehicle while wearing their body armor and carrying all of their gear, said Eckman, who served as an infantry assault Marine.

Most times, Marines and sailors only have one open hatch to get out of an amphibious vehicle, and that path is usually obstructed by the service members’ gear, he said. If the service members are wearing their body armor, that means they can only exit the vehicle one at a time.

Still, Eckman said that the vehicle commander probably should have begun evacuating his troops as soon as he signaled that they were in trouble.

“My thinking is: If you’re willing to fly the November Flag, you should be willing to get every person out of the vehicle immediately, and by the time that rescue AAV arrives, there should not be a single person who is not already on the rooftop or floating in the water nearby,” he said.

One of the Marines who died in the July 30 training accident was Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood. He was killed one day before his 19th birthday.

His mother, Christiana Sweetwood, said she doesn’t feel the Marine Corps has held those responsible for the deaths of all nine service members accountable.

When Marine Corps officials briefed her family about the investigation, they were told that no one has been referred to a court-martial so far, although some of the people blamed by investigators have been disciplined in other ways, Sweetwood’s mother said.

“Pretty much, we were told: We’re not going to see a whole lot,” she said. “To me, that means all of these people involved in this — including the commander of the AAV that day — are pretty much going to just get a slap on the wrist and go ahead and maybe push some papers.”

“But my worst fear is that they are going to be in control of other lives again,” she continued. “That shouldn’t happen. They should never, ever — some of these men — be able to be over anybody else’s life ever again. Not after nine boys dying. That’s a lot of kids.”

Featured image: U.S. Marines and Sailors with Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, display portraits during a memorial service at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Aug. 21, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck.)

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