The Marine Corps' top general will soon make his recommendations to the acting Navy secretary about whether more senior leaders should be punished for a horrific 2020 training accident off the coast of California that killed nine troops -- deaths the commandant said were preventable.
The Marine Corps has completed its follow-on review into how a unit assembled ahead of a fatal July 2020 waterborne accident, Commandant Gen. David Berger told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. The sinking of a decades-old amphibious assault vehicle that resulted in the deaths of eight Marines and a sailor led to the firing of a colonel and a lieutenant colonel, but left more senior officers unscathed.
Berger said when he read the findings of the first probe, "it was pretty clear to me we needed to do a follow-on investigation." That new investigation, which was announced in April, examined how the California-based 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, to which the fallen Marines and sailors were assigned, formed ahead of its fall deployment.
"I have a very clear picture right now all the way up the chain [of command]," Berger said. "I don't need any more to have a discussion with the secretary. I have what I need right now."
Berger declined to say how many general officers or other senior leaders could face reprimands, but said the spectrum of options -- from no punishments to administrative reprimands all the way up to courts-martial -- are possible.
"They are on the table always -- for all of us," Berger said of military leaders. "Not just this case, but they're all on the table."
Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi remains suspended from his position as inspector general of the Marine Corps, Berger said, pending the outcome of the recommendations he'll make to acting Navy Secretary Tom Harker. Castellvi was serving as commanding general of 1st Marine Division when the AAV accident occurred. He was found to bear some responsibility for the incident, but was still assigned to serve in a high-profile position at the Pentagon.
The other two officers who've already been fired include Lt. Col. Michael J. Regner, who led Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, and Col. Christopher Bronzi, the 15th MEU's commanding officer. Regner was removed from his job in October. Bronzi was relieved in March while leading the 15th MEU in the Middle East.
This is the second time in two years the Marine Corps has had to review the findings of a fatal training accident. A review into a fatal 2018 midair collision off Japan's coast that killed six Marines later left a two-star general and colonel facing administrative actions.
Cpls. Wesley Rodd and Cesar Villanueva; Lance Cpls. Marco Barranco, Guillermo Perez and Lance Cpl. Chase Sweetwood; Pfcs. Bryan Baltierra, Evan Bath and Jack Ryan Ostrovsky; and Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem were killed in the accident. They were all assigned to Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. Their unit was operating with the 15th MEU.
"I don't think that I have ever seen something so horrible in my life in terms of how many things went wrong," Sweetwood's mother, Christiana, told Military.com after her family was briefed on the findings. "I 100% believe that a lot of the people that were involved -- people that should have been leaders, people that should have advocated for them to have better -- failed them. They failed them."
The investigation found most of the AAVs assigned to the MEU were not in good working condition. Leaders also failed to properly train the troops to exit the vehicle in the event of an emergency, and there were no safety boats in the water to assist the doomed AAV once it started taking on water.
Berger said there are no excuses for failing to ensure Marines received their necessary training ahead of such a dangerous training exercise. The investigation found most of the troops in the AAV had only been trained to get out of the vehicle in shallow water. The AAV sank in water more than 300 feet deep on its way back to a Navy ship after a mock raid exercise ashore.
"There are no excuses for that at all," Berger said. "None."
The Marine Corps has a lot to do to address its safety culture, particularly during training exercises, he added. While he doesn't want to create a force of leaders that become averse to taking risks in combat, Berger said the AAV disaster highlighted problems that could put other personnel in unnecessarily dangerous situations.
"I am concerned ... in our aggressiveness, in our can-do attitude -- that we can work through any friction [or] obstacles," he said. "... This is the ultimate test of leadership, right? Balancing your priorities and understanding where you're taking risk."
Marines must feel empowered in any training scenario -- from shooting on the rifle range to being in an AAV -- to speak up if they see something unsafe, the commandant added. And more importantly, he said, leaders need to stop and listen to their Marines if they raise concerns.
"We have to temper 10 or 15 years of leadership to stop and go, 'Maybe they saw some that the rest of us didn't see,'" Berger said. "We have to discipline leadership as well."
Aside from the new probe on how the 15th MEU formed, Berger said a Navy investigation into the accident remains ongoing. It's unclear whether that could lead to reprimands in the Navy after personnel were found to have failed to provide updates on water conditions. Miscommunication also left the AAVs operating in deep water without any safety boats.
The Marine Corps is also assembling a "blue-star panel," led by retired Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, that will spend months assessing the Navy and Marine Corps' abilities to safely carry out amphibious operations. Waldhauser wrapped up his 43-year career with a tour as head of U.S. Africa Command, but has extensive amphibious warfare experience.
The panel will include other retired Navy and Marine personnel as well as safety experts, Berger said. They will travel around the world to assess Marine and Navy units conducting amphibious operations.
"That will take several months," he said. "... Where are we now in the Navy and Marine Corps? And then based on how we think we're going to need to operate in the future, what is it going to take to get us there?"
Ultimately, Berger said, the responsibility for last summer's deadly accident lies with him, and he owns the need to prevent similar ones from happening.He stopped short of promising another one would ever occur again though, citing the dangerous nature of Marines' work.
"I can promise ... we will turn over every stone and try to limit that to as close as possible," he said.