Lance Cpl. Tyler Engfer, an Assault Amphibious Vehicle crew chief with 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, operates the turret of an AAV-P7/A1 during an exercise Jan. 19, 2020, on Camp Pendleton, California. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Britany Rowlett.
A Marine Corps investigation into the drowning of nine service members in an Assault Amphibious Vehicle accident last year found COVID-19 restrictions and troops being spread thin over multiple commitments played a role in the deadly accident.
The Marine Corps report was released Wednesday, Oct. 6, coinciding with the release of the Navy’s own investigation into the incident.
Eight Marines and one sailor attached to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit died when their AAV sank July 30, 2020, while traveling from San Clemente Island, California, back to the USS Somerset after a training exercise. An earlier Marine Corps investigation stated the aging and poorly maintained vehicle began taking on water, causing the radios and electrical system to fail. The report faults the vehicle commander for waiting too long to order the evacuation of embarked troops.
At least two Marine Corps officers were fired in the wake of the mishap, and the families of the deceased service members filed a lawsuit against the AAV manufacturer, BAE Systems.
The new report examines what a senior military leader found to be additional contributing factors to Marine Corps officials’ lack of oversight. Lt. Gen. Carl Mundy III, who led the investigation, wrote that commanders, staff, and troops were stretched thin ahead of the accident.
“The claims on their time and attention surfaced in a number of interviews with several senior officers who described the conditions during this period as second only to their experience in combat,” Mundy wrote.
Examples of those added tasks included augmenting Customs and Border Patrol activities on the US-Mexico border and planning for combat operations due to heightened tensions with Iran in January 2020. However, the investigation emphasizes that “overcoming the uncertainty associated with COVID precautions” was the main challenge between February and July 2020.
Mundy wrote that a coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt early on in the pandemic “compressed and complicated” training opportunities for the 15th MEU. Setting up quarantine facilities for thousands of deploying and redeploying Marines and “dealing with other emerging requirements related to rescheduling and re-scoping exercises, training, and deployments” also hindered training.
One officer quoted in the Marine investigation said senior commanders knew the 15th MEU was “not in a normal place” in terms of training due to complications caused by the pandemic.
The Navy’s investigation, meanwhile, found communication problems between the branches the day of the sinking. Navy investigator Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney wrote that the Somerset’s commanding officer “did not fully understand communication pathways” between the ship and Marine vehicles. But the communication problems did not cause the disaster, and the Somerset responded quickly once it was notified the AAV was in distress, according to the report, a copy of which was uploaded by USNI News.
The new Navy investigation largely agrees with initial reports that poorly maintained vehicles, inadequate training, and a slow response time caused the disaster. Navy officials have now mandated safety boats whenever AAVs operate with Navy shipping and are revising training manuals and reference documents, USNI News reported.
Several Navy personnel have faced administrative action due to the disaster, but no one has lost their job, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said in a conference call with reporters this week.
“This tragedy should never have occurred,” Kitchener said, according to The Washington Post. “We will not let the lives be lost in vain. We have learned from this, and we will permanently improve the way we plan and execute amphibious operations.”
Christiana Sweetwood, the mother of one of the Marines killed in the AAV disaster, told the Post she received thousands of pages of documents from the military and has still been combing through them.
“I feel like so much at this point has been thrown at us,” she told the Post. “It’s almost like everyone is pointing fingers at each other.”
Spokespeople for the Marine Corps and Navy did not respond to Coffee or Die Magazine’s request for comment before publication.
Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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