The Buck Stops Here: Hold High-Ranking Officers Responsible for Training Accidents
Michael H.C. McDowell is a Fellow in New America’s International Security Program, focusing on the high death rate and critical injury toll on service members in military tactical vehicle “rollovers.” His son, Marine troop commander 1st Lt. H. Conor McDowell, 24, was killed in a rollover at Camp Pendleton, California, on May 9, 2019.
Generals and admirals are rarely, if ever, held accountable or responsible for training accidents, continuing to rise up the greasy pole of command. Enough!
After nine young men — eight Marines and a Navy corpsman, some in their teens — died horrific drowning deaths in an eminently preventable training tragedy last summer, are general officers never to be held accountable, never to be held responsible, never to be penalized?
It certainly looks like it.
Late last week, the Marine Corps slow-rolled out to the media a truly damning self-investigation of the sinking of an amphibious assault vehicle, or AAV, off Camp Pendleton, California, on July 30, 2020.
A “chain of failure … poor training … [a 35-year-old AAV] in horrible condition … [one of several 26-ton AAVs seen as] inoperable … maintenance failures … disregard of maintenance procedures … failure to evacuate in time … a rush to deploy” — all damning quotes from the 1,700-plus-page inquiry report just released to the grieving families and the press.
Tellingly, the commanding general of 1st Marine Division at the time, Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi, is named by his superior, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, head of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, as bearing “some responsibility” (my emphasis) for training that the AAV unit did not receive. But Rudder specifically said he opted not to discipline Castellvi. Why?
Instead, Castellvi is now Inspector General of the Marine Corps, the top officer heading investigations and inquiries into such fiascos as the AAV drowning deaths. Why no penalty for the two-star? Suspiciously, a colonel was fired just 12 days ago, on the very eve of a key House subcommittee hearing on so-called “mishaps” involving military vehicles and aviation. A lieutenant colonel from the AAV unit was fired last fall.
Full disclosure: My son, Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, 24, was needlessly killed at Camp Pendleton in an earlier, preventable training disaster, when his light armored vehicle, or LAV, rolled over. He was killed instantly as the vehicle toppled into a hidden crevasse that range inspection had overlooked. My wife, Susan Flanigan, and my son’s fiancee, Kathleen Bourque, and I all met Castellvi at Conor’s memorial at the base; we were uncomfortable with the way in which Castellvi handled the Line of Duty report, despite him exonerating Conor from any blame. We are indeed proud that Conor’s men, who loved him, told us in person, and in signed official documents, that “he saved our lives.” Heartbreakingly for us, Conor couldn’t save himself.
Castellvi was the general responsible for both my son’s unit — 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion — and the AAV unit. So his job description included oversight of both. Lower-ranking officers and noncommissioned officers are being blamed for the mess, but not their top boss. How come?
At a Sept. 22, 2020, handover ceremony to his successor, Castellvi said, “The division is at its most ready state.”
His boss, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, commanding general of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Pendleton, praised Castellvi for exceptional performance: “‘Cas’ has been exceptional from readiness, across the board.”
Heckl, addressing Castellvi, continued, “Are you leaving this command in a better place than you found it? That’s an unequivocal yes.”
Castellvi’s new job as IG is to ensure combat readiness and institutional integrity through independent inspections, investigations, teaching and training.
Since Conor’s death in May 2019, we were shocked to learn, from our own deep research, that far more young men and women die in training than in combat; in the majority of cases, they die when vehicles are dangerously unfit for purpose. Too often, the vehicles are pushed negligently through inspections by superior officers, are poorly maintained and apt to break down, and prone to tip over unless driven skillfully under proper training. Every month, more young people die like this — a shocking number of them at Camp Pendleton. Some of these wheeled death traps should never be allowed to leave the ramps.
The July 2020 incident is unique only because of the high number of deaths in one vehicle. That AAV was one of literally tens of thousands of tactical “vics” (as they are called) in the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy brought back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are worn-out, have been sitting too long in base “graveyards” and then been hauled out for use when they should be dispensed with or just cannibalized for parts that can’t be obtained new.
While we spend billions on planes, missiles and ships, the poor grunts in the infantry are given short shrift, and flag officers blame others and are not held responsible themselves. They should be.
There are no new AAVs, only a few prototypes still being tested. The same is true of LAVs and Humvees (which have the highest number of rollover deaths), etc. All our tactical “vics” are top-heavy and over-armored, and the vast majority don’t even have anti-lock brakes or electronic stability controls, which domestic cars have had for decades. ALB and ESC stop vehicles more quickly and over shorter distances. Some vics even lack seat belts and harnesses, and have many other life-threatening defects.
Military and civilian engineering experts tell us that adding cameras; tilt meters; GPS capability; LIDAR, short for light detection and ranging, which sends out pulses of laser light to determine the distance to various objects, or other terrain warning systems; and effective communication systems will not increase costs much at all — and save billions of dollars invested to train and keep personnel alive.
The doomed AAV that sank last year was already a basket case when the troops were preparing to leave San Clemente Island to return to Pendleton. When it pushed into the surf, it soon began taking on water, and the men found themselves ankle deep in minutes. The interior lights in the packed cramped passenger section didn’t work. The Marines, stuck in the dark, were breathing diesel fumes as the engine began to fail, resorting to using their cell phone camera lights to find the hatch handles to evacuate. Then, one handle broke off in the frantic effort. It was a terrifying disaster. As the minutes ticked on, the men were in water up to their waists, chests and then necks. The radio communication between the other AAVs ahead of them failed, and a Marine in an outside hatch frantically had to wave a checkered distress flag to indicate the imminent peril.
There were no safety boats around them, which should be standard operating procedure between the large docking ship they were headed for and the 12 vic AAV group. A second AAV tried to go to their rescue but, in the heavy ocean swell, ended up sideswiping the ailing vic, which caused it to quickly drop, head up, and it became too late to rescue the men trapped inside.
Last fall, we asked Congress to investigate these alarming deaths in tactical vehicles. The Government Accountability Office will report in May on its deep dive into rollover deaths, looking back a decade, followed by further congressional committee hearings and possible legislation to mandate that the Defense Department bring in safety measures to improve, not weaken, military readiness.
We cannot bring back my son and others from rollovers, or the eight Marines and Navy corpsman who perished last July. But their lives will not have been in vain if we can bring about reforms to reduce the death toll in training. Our elected representatives need to hold general officers to account, not just those below them who rightly or wrongly become the “fall guys.”
That shameful pattern must be broken. Rank should come with responsibility, accountability and paying the price for failing.
Let’s never forget the names of the poor young men who died on July 30, 2020: Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, California; Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California; Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Oregon; Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Texas; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon; and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California.
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