A week before he died, Lance Cpl. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky told his father he was worried about the condition of the amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) used to ferry U.S. combat Marines from a Navy ship to the shore.
He confided to his father, retired federal agent Peter Ostrovsky, that the heavily-armored AAVs “sink all the time.”
“It was hard for me to believe that statement, but now I know there was more to the story that was the basis for his concern,” Mr. Ostrovsky told a House Armed Services subcommittee Monday.
Lance Cpl. Ostrovsky, along with eight other infantry Marines and a Navy corpsman, Petty Officer Christopher Gnem, drowned July 30, 2020 when their AAV sank near San Clemente Island while it was churning through the water toward the USS Somerset, its destination. A recent Marine Corps command investigation into the incident blamed the deaths on a “chain of failure” by commanding officers, shoddy maintenance on the assault vehicles along with inadequate training and poor communications.
Lawmakers said the Pentagon needed to do some soul-searching.
“This is not an isolated incident. Right now, a cascading series of failures within the military is causing the U.S. to lose more service members in preventable training accidents than in combat,” said Rep. John Garamendi, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness, who convened Monday’s hearing.
“This will not be tolerated,” added Mr. Garamendi, a California Democrat. “The culture of neglect must transform into a culture of safety.”
Gen. Gary L. Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, called the deaths “preventable in so many ways.”
“We failed these brave young men,” said Gen. Thomas. “We also mourn their loss.”
The general said 11 people have been fired following an investigation into the incident. Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi was the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division at the time of the accident but became the Marine Corps’s inspector general afterward. He has since been suspended from that position pending the outcome of another investigation.
Marine Corps officials said almost all of the AAVs used in the exercise were having mechanical issues. An investigation later found systemic leakage problems with the Marine Corps’ entire fleet, said Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, staff director of the Marine Corps.
“It may have been that 20 years of landward operations [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have caused us to lose some of our amphibious edge,” Maj. Gen. Olson said.
The AAV involved in the fatal accident began taking on water from multiple locations. The bilge pumps were knocked out of operation when the transmission failed. It took at least 45 minutes for another AAV to come to the distressed vessel’s aid but by that time it was too late.
Peter Vienna, father of Petty Officer Christopher Gnem, said the 40-year-old AAVs should never have been put into the water. He said there were no safety boats trailing the lumbering amphibious assault vehicles. Regulations call for one safety boat for every six AAVs. His son and the Marines hadn’t been adequately trained on what to do in the event it started taking on water.
“There was no emergency egress training. They knew they were sinking for quite some time yet they were found with their full body armor on,” said Mr. Vienna. “They obviously had no idea what to do.”
While some have called the deaths of the Marines and the sailor “a mishap,” Mr. Vienna rejects the term.
“What actually occurred was a predictable outcome resulting from a reckless disregard for human life by a command that ignores its own safety standards and operational procedures,” he said.
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who fought in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer, said he had “serious concerns” about the incident that led to the drowning deaths.
“I spent a lot of time in an AAV, including during waterborne operations. That’s how we got into Baghdad,” said Mr. Moulton. “I can tell you that we sat on the roof because we were afraid it would sink.”
Regardless of their poor performance and spotty maintenance history, AAVs will remain in the Marine Corps inventory until 2026 when they are scheduled to be replaced by the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV).
“These are old vehicles but they are broadly well understood what is required to keep them up,” Gen. Thomas said. “I can assure you, we [can] keep these vehicles in a high state of material readiness until 2026.”
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