Lawmakers Demand Accountability for Military Training Deaths

A tragedy at sea last summer that left nine young men dead has stirred questions about accountability and the power Congress has over the U.S. military’s training and equipment standards.

The U.S. flag was lowered to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, Calif., on July 31, 2020, after a seafaring military assault vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California. (Paul Bersebach/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The drowning deaths of nine young servicemen who plummeted to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean after being trapped inside a decrepit amphibious assault vehicle demand an immediate culture shift inside the Marine Corps and Navy, lawmakers told senior military officials Monday.

Last July, a training exercise three miles off the coast of San Clemente Island, California, went horribly awry.

Fifteen Marines and one Navy sailor packed into a 26-ton AAV, short for amphibious assault vehicle, and headed into high surf. Their training for such an exercise was incomplete or nonexistent and the seafaring tank was dubbed “operationally inoperable” by Marine Corps mechanics just months before the young men boarded it.

Excessive leaking inside the nearly 30-year-old vehicle in addition to botched engine intakes, a shoddy transmission, a loss of emergency communications, downed emergency light systems and improper training culminated in a frantic 45 minutes for the men shoulder-to-shoulder inside the AAV’s hull.

Only a few of those inside managed to escape after the vehicle commander, straddling the sinking vessel, opened a hatch and hoisted Marines out as it sat just inches above the water line.  

But waves overcame them as they attempted to disembark and water rushed in, sinking the AAV to the ocean floor with eight Marines and one Navy sailor – all donning heavy flak jackets, helmets, rifles and gear – trapped inside. The eldest servicemember among those who drowned was just 22 years old.

Nearly a year later, the pain and frustration from that day still looms large in Peter Vienna’s life.

Vienna is the stepfather of Navy Corpsman Christopher “Bobby” Gnem, who drowned during the accident. On Monday, Vienna described the tragedy to members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness as a “predictable outcome resulting from a reckless disregard for human life.”

“If I hear one more time, ‘We have to train like we fight,’ I think my head will explode,” Vienna said before emphasizing the simultaneous frustration and respect he and his family have for the U.S. military, which first offered Gnem a burgeoning world of opportunity.

Now, Vienna said he has spent much of the last year on suicide watch as he and his wife, Gnem’s mother, and their family wrestles daily with who to hold accountable in light of legal precedent like the 1950 Supreme Court decision in Feres v. United States, which bars claims of negligence from being brought over injuries to active-duty military members.

Vienna pointedly asked legislators how it could be that an institution like the Marine Corps or Navy could “self-police or self-punish all while hiding behind an antiquated law” and offering nothing that resembles justice for those individuals or families who willingly sign themselves up for service.

“Carve out something within the Feres doctrine that doesn’t allow gross negligence,” Vienna said. “When a situation like this has as many issues as there were, you can’t call it anything other than gross negligence.”

He added, “In a situation like this, there needs to be accountability and without accountability this is just going to continue. And in three or four years, we’ll watch another hearing about lack of training and shoddy equipment and it’s just going to recycle itself.”

Lieutenant General Steven Rudder, commander of the Marine Corps Forces Pacific, found in his final review of the incident it was a “confluence of human and mechanical failures” that caused the AAV’s sinking and “contributed to a delayed rescue effort” that left nine dead.

“Ultimately, this tragic mishap was preventable,” Rudder wrote.

But a “mishap” is not how Vienna would define it. Nor is it how Peter Ostrovsky would sum it up.

Ostrovsky’s son, Private First Class Jack Ostrovsky, told his father a week before he drowned that “AAVs sink all the time.”

The poor conditions of the vehicles were notorious, even to young servicemen. And according to Rudder’s report from March, zero safety ships were in the water nearby on the day of the sinking. Standard operating procedures for AAV training mandate the presence of at least two safety boats for every six assault vehicles in the water.

The results of the report shocked the Ostrovskys because it pointed to “gross negligence, lack of duty and lack of care.”

“He was supposed to be the next leader of our family who was going to create his own legacy of success through his military career,” Ostrovsky said of his son Jack.

Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, agreed that Feres warrants reconsideration.

“It’s a legal doctrine, not law. It’s a Supreme Court decision on which we have relied on. We should do more than we have done, although we have provided over the course of 10 years $400 million to deal with claims by service members who are victims of medical malpractice at medical facilities. We need to expand that to deal with gross negligence in situations like this,” she said, adding lawmakers will discuss the proposal as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act

Administrative action has been taken against at least 10 service members involved in the incident but the military has been cagey about what that entails.

“It could be a day without pay to months without pay or reduction of rank,” Ostrovsky opined.

General Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, confirmed that the majority of those under discipline are being considered for separation from service while others have had “lesser discipline.”

“One being held accountable suffered drowning injuries. One dove into the water to rescue one of the Marines that came to the surface. All have survived traumatic stress injuries and have lived with the decisions they made,” Thomas said.

Speier offered her understanding but little patience.

“If you go through the list of these problems with the AAVs, it makes your head spin… this was a death trap in which we put these servicemembers,” the congresswoman said.

The Marine Corps is planning to unveil a revamped line of AAVs but that won’t be done for nearly another decade. In the meantime, the Corps will continue investigating training accidents more broadly and will release a report with the Army later this month. One recommendation for AAVs may be that commanders no longer make decisions to “splash,” or get vehicles in the water, and that decision would have to come from higher-ranking officers.

Admiral Roy Kitchener, commander of Naval Surface Forces, told lawmakers Monday another report detailing the Navy’s role in the tragedy off San Clemente Island is coming this month.

Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California, chair of the subcommittee, said the Navy and Marine Corps “totally failed” its readiness mission. He said military leaders told him at previous hearings on readiness that they were prepared and could overcome the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic as the summer started last year.

“Gentlemen, that was not true,” Garamendi said. “The Navy and Marine Corps leadership must make a decision and they must decide to not allow the status quo to continue. The eight members of the Marine Corps and one member of the Navy that were lost were not the first. The Marine Corps has lost 60 Marines in just the last five years and more than 130 in the previous 10.”

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