A panel to determine the guilt of the former battalion commander in the sinking of a deadly amphibious vehicle

In this July 31, 2020 photo, the American flag is seen lowered to mid-length at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, Calif., After a maritime assault vehicle sank off the southern California coast. (Paul Bersebach / AP)

(Tribune News Service) – After hearing testimony on Friday from the former battalion commander of the Eight Marines and a sailor killed when their amphibious vehicle sank under the Pacific waves in July 2020, a panel of three Marine colonels will determine whether it should be held accountable.

The results of the officer’s commission of inquiry – and those of several others slated for the coming weeks – will be announced when they are all completed, according to the Camp Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force.

Lt. Col. Michael Regner, the former 1/4 Battalion team commander, was removed from his post in the months following the fatal crash. A Marine Corps investigation later revealed that he was partly responsible for a series of training and planning missteps that resulted in the sinking and death.

Regner’s commission of inquiry began Tuesday at Camp Pendleton – the home of 1/4. During two days of testimony, the commission heard from the Colonel of the Navy who investigated the sinking, the corporal who drove the vehicle and the parents of two of those killed.

They also heard from colonels praising Regner and – in a four-hour testimonial marathon on Friday – Regner himself.

Unlike a court martial, which is a judicial process in criminal matters, a commission of inquiry is administrative in nature. A panel of three officers will review the evidence and testimony and make two decisions, the second depending on the first. First, they must decide whether Regner’s performance as a commander was “substandard”. Second, if they say that was the case, they must decide whether he will stay in the Marines or if he will be forced to leave.

Military lawyers representing the government told panelists that the conclusions of the inquiries were clear: Regner’s performance as commander of the 1/4 was “substandard”, and this contributed to the tragedy.

Regner’s lawyers argued that the former battalion commander did everything in his power to prepare his Marines for the operations that day and that a combination of misinformation from his subordinates and indifference d ‘up was what had set the stage for the fatal mission.

Regner has been in the Marines for more than 19 years and is six months away from being eligible for military retirement, according to his military lawyer. Among the senior officers who wrote letters of praise recommending Regner’s retention was Lieutenant-General Karsten S. Heckl, the former commanding general of the I MEF.

On the morning of July 30, 2020, Marines of 1/4 departed the Somerset Amphibious Transport Dock aboard 13 amphibious assault vehicles and proceeded to San Clemente Island. The unit was training to deploy with the new 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

It was the first time that 1/4 Marines had conducted water operations in Vietnam War vehicles.

While on the island, some AAVs had mechanical issues, including AAV # 5, the one that later sank. This delayed the return of the Marines to Somerset. Nine AAVs eventually began the return journey, and four stayed behind. One of them almost immediately started to take on water and returned to the island.

The other eight, including AAV # 5, headed for Somerset. The transmission of this AAV failed when it was more than halfway to the vessel and started to take on water. Without his transmission running, he couldn’t pump water. The armored AAV sank under hundreds of feet of water.

Three investigations, one from the Navy and two from the Marines, revealed that the AAVs donated to 1/4 by the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion were in poor mechanical condition.

“They were handing over the garbage at 1/4,” lead investigator Col. Fridrik Fridriksson told the board on Thursday.

Additionally, the 1/4 Marines were not fully qualified in swimming and had not undergone training that could have helped them escape the crippled and sinking vehicle. These training programs, investigators said, were mandatory.

Fridriksson told the board that Regner failed to ensure that his Marines were qualified for swimming, qualified for evacuation of underwater vehicles and to ensure that the AAVs his Marines would ride in were in good material condition.

Cpl. Dallas Truxal, who was driving the AAV that day, said he only survived because he knew his way around the vehicle.

“If I didn’t,” he said, “myself and the names of two other Marines would be on this list – we would be dead.”

The AAV was one of the best of the bunch, Truxal told the board. “It was the best lead through 90 percent of our work,” Truxal said. “She was the GOAT”

The parents of two of those killed testified Thursday about the effect of the crash well outside the gates of the base.

Peter Ostrovsky, father of Pfc, 21. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky told the board that his family were shocked by the “top-down incompetence” of his son’s leadership when they were first informed of the investigation.

“(The investigation) showed a lack of due diligence on our son and his teammates,” Ostrovsky said, adding that he was “bewildered at how vehicles in such poor condition could be part of the reaction force. American “.

Nancy Vienna, mother of 22-year-old Marine Corps member Christopher “Bobby” Gnem, testified through tears about how her son’s unexpected death affected her. “My heart hurts when I think of the fear he had when the AAV broke down,” she said. “I was not there for him.

Peter Vienna, Gnem’s father, told the board he did not understand why Regner or senior Marine leaders objected to the responsibility.

“Are they pushing back just so they can retire at a higher rank?” ” he said. “We are only looking for a share of responsibility. “

On Friday, Regner testified in detail about the events leading up to the formation of the 15th MEU. He said the challenges of the pandemic, a border mission and part of the AAV platoon sent to exercise in the Middle East in the coming months underlined the normal training cycle of a battalion landing team.

Regner said he has been tracking AAVs and has a list of them and their mechanical issues by serial number. Before the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion handed over the vehicles to him, he said he went over the list line by line with the 3rd Track commander, Lt. Col. Keith Brenize.

Brenize had a separate commission of inquiry last month in Quantico, Virginia. The results have not been published.

Regner said the company commander had misled him as to whether the Bravo Company Marines were fully qualified for swimming. One of the conclusions of the investigation was that the Marines trained only with a shallow water evacuation trainer, but not with the underwater trainer, as it was down for maintenance.

At the time, MEF’s policy was to train in the shallow water simulator if the underwater pool was not available – a policy that has changed since the accident.

Regner said after the sinking he went to see his Marines in Somerset and the ship was “depressed and nervous” after the crash.

“They don’t have the scar tissue, they don’t have the calluses to handle these situations,” said Regner, who led the Marines in combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and Helmand province, Afghanistan. .

Regner cried when asked when he was relieved of his command and said he would join the I MEF staff instead.

“I was brought up in the Marine Corps,” said Regner, the son of retired Major-General Michael Regner.

© 2022 The Union-Tribune of San Diego.

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