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First panel convened at Camp Pendleton in deadly AAV sinking

A Marine Corps officer takes responsibility for a lack of oversight in the 2020 sinking of an amphibious assault vehicle off the Southern California coast that killed nine service members under his command, but he doesn’t deserve to be discharged for any missteps, his attorney told a military panel Tuesday.

A Marine Corps attorney countered that Lt. Col. Michael J. Regner’s missteps were egregious enough to justify ending his military service six months short of reaching the 20-year mark that would entitle him to full retirement benefits.

Regner is expected to address the three-officer panel during the Board of Inquiry hearing that began Tuesday and is expected to last up to four days.

“He’s never shirked his responsibilities, he owned the fact that he was the commander at the time, he knows that he is responsible for the deficiencies that took place,” said Maj. Cory Carver, Regner’s attorney. Carver added that while the buck stops with his client, his actions don’t justify discharge. The board will decide whether he should be demoted or even removed from the military.

Hearings will be held later this month for four more Marines in positions of responsibility that day, one was delayed this week because of a COVID-19 exposure. In the hearings before panels of three colonels, the Marines are given an opportunity to present information and respond to allegations, Marine Corps officials said.

Some family members of the nine men who died will also be in attendance and are expected to submit statements.

At the time of the deadly training accident, Regner was the commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, the unit the eight Marines and a sailor were assigned to.

After a training raid with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in preparation for a deployment, 13 AAVs and their crews left the northwest beach of San Clemente to return to the USS Somerset, a Navy transport dock waiting just offshore. One vehicle took on more water than it could handle and sank, eight of the 16 service members on board could not get out and died, while another man was pulled from the water, but pronounced dead.

Three Southern California natives, Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, a rifleman; Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, a rifleman; and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, a rifleman, were among the nine.

The training accident – called the deadliest in the history of the Marine Corps’ use of the amphibious assault vehicle – prompted a suspension of all water training in AAVs across the Marines Corps and changes in training and safety protocols. In December, Gen. David Berger, the Marines’ commandant, pulled the AAVs from any future deployments, unless there is an emergency need.

A series of military investigations into the accident reported a domino effect of failures at several levels: The deaths were called “preventable;” the AAVs used were described as “operably inoperable” and a failure to follow standard operating procedures was outlined. Investigators also said the Marines and sailor who died lacked required training and in some cases had not passed swim qualifications.

Regner, a decorated commander who served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, was removed from his command in October 2020.

Regner relied on other Marines to tell him that all service members were certified to swim, even though some weren’t, Carver said in his opening statements Tuesday. Regner was told “they’re stellar, that they’re above average, that they were deployable,” he said.

Regner knew of mechanical problems with the AAVs, but was told they were fixed, Carver said. Problems with escape hatches on the all-terrain vehicles were known within the Marines for “years and years.”

Since the investigations, there have been disciplinary actions taken across the leadership ranks including Gen. Robert F. Castellvi, then commander of the 1st Marine Division, who was removed from his promotion as inspector general at the Pentagon, and Col. Christopher J. Bronzi, who supervised Regner, was relieved of command of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit last year.

Last month a similar board hearing for Lt. Col. Keith Brenize, the former commander of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion at Camp Pendleton, which maintained, trained with and provided the AAVs for the planned deployment, began at Marine Corps Base Quantico. It is expected to resume in February, Marine Corps officials said.

Peter Ostrovsky, father of Lance Cpl. Jack-Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, is among family members who are attending the hearings at Camp Pendleton.  In the statement he said he was submitting into evidence for the new hearings, he outlines the series of failures and lack of training found leading up to his son’s death, but in the end, asks the question why the commanders who “could have ‘stopped the show’ and saved lives” didn’t.

The inquiry board on Tuesday received thousands of pages of documents for review and is expected to return to the hearing on Thursday, Jan. 6.

Source: Orange County Register

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