Parents of 9 military personnel killed in training accident still want answers: NPR

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Military hearings are underway regarding the drowning of eight Marines and one sailor in July 2020. They died off the coast of California during a training exercise gone wrong.



SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Military hearings are underway into the tragic drowning of eight marines and one sailor two years ago. They died off California during a training exercise gone wrong. Their parents are always looking for answers and justice. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS followed their story.

LUPITA GARCIA: Very affectionate boy – loved his father, his sisters, me.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: It’s been more than 18 months since Lupita Garcia’s son was killed in a training accident. Lance Corporal Marco Barranco, 21, drowned along with eight other soldiers when his vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California in July 2020.

GARCIA: I always thought the military was very organized. They knew what they were doing. And so I feel a little guilty because I didn’t think about it more. Maybe if I had known there were all these flaws, maybe all these accidents, I would have told my son.

WALSH: Garcia wanted to meet me at a park in Montebello, just east of Los Angeles. When he was still in high school, Marco worked at this park with a group of Marines to prepare him for enlistment. His name has since been added to the local Veterans Memorial at the other end of the park.

GARCIA: I believe in God. I have Faith. And sometimes I just say, that’s what God wanted. But I do not accept that it is in training. That’s what makes me really, really angry. Why in training?

WALSH: Garcia is among a group of parents who sat in the audience during a series of hearings at Camp Pendleton, hearings to determine whether some of the leaders involved that day will be removed from the corps.

GARCIA: It’s just – it just keeps hearing all this stuff, but, yeah, I haven’t felt anything like, oh, OK, I feel better now – absolutely not.

WALSH: On July 30, 2020, eight Marines and one sailor drowned while returning to USS Somerset from San Clemente Island in an amphibious assault vehicle. Armored personnel carriers become boats in water. Some of the aging vehicles broke down. Their unit was so behind schedule that their shift moved to another exercise. Their commander was aboard one of the ships. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Regner, testified that in the confusion he did not understand which AAV was sinking. Forty-five minutes later, the runway with Garcia’s son sank, with several soldiers still fighting their way out.

ALETA BATH: I don’t feel like we’re getting justice. All I hear in these signs – they’re going around in circles pointing at each other.

WALSH: Aleta Bath is the mother of PFC Evan Bath, 19, of Wisconsin. She attended almost all the hearings. At least three officers responsible that day were allowed to remain in the corps. Each officer said they informed their commanders of the issues. None of them stopped the exercise.

BATH: They’re supposed to be Marines, but no one has taken responsibility for them, and no one is held accountable. So me sitting in this chair, if nothing else, they must be watching me.

WALSH: The Marines and Navy are producing several reports of serious training deficiencies and equipment failures. And that’s not the only accident. Sixty Marines have died in training over the past five years. Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts serves on the House Armed Services Committee. Moulton is also a former Navy officer who rode an AAV in combat.

SETH MOULTON: I was afraid they would sink, and that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment.

WALSH: He says they didn’t feel safe inside the vehicle crossing a river into Baghdad during the initial invasion, so they got on it.

MOULTON: It comes down to the culture. If I had that concern as a young second lieutenant 20 years ago, then, you know, why hasn’t the Marine Corps satisfactorily addressed that since then?

WALSH: It took another 18 months after the accident for the Marines to finally retire the aging AAVs from service at sea. Moulton says the tougher question is whether the Marines can create a culture where officers are empowered to interrupt an exercise when they see a problem. Nancy and Peter Vienna’s son, Navy Hospital Corpsman Christopher Bobby Gnem, drowned that day. The survivors told them what they had seen.

PETER VIENNA: We asked them, what was he doing at the end? And he said, for a while, that he was the kidding guy, trying to keep everyone calm. But what he was doing was trying to help other people take off their gear.

WALSH: Their son was among the troops allowed to participate in the exercise despite not passing the required swim tests.

VIENNA: The boys were in the dark. Two of them had swiped cell phones, which they weren’t supposed to, but they were using their cell phones to try to see the light. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because they never had any evacuation training.

WALSH: Technically, they’re not even gold star families. Congress reserves this title for families of those killed in action, not training.

GARCIA: I would rather my son die in battle because I would have been prepared for that. (Crying) I would accept it all the more because I knew it was his job. They were asking me, it’s been almost two years. Why are you still in mourning? I’m like, because I can’t accept this. I’m not allowed to have an open casket. I don’t get justice.

WALSH: You never saw him again.

GARCIA: I couldn’t tell her I love you.

WALSH: For NPR News, I’m Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, “SING ABOUT ME, I’M DYING OF THIRST”)

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