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Hearings aim to determine why service members died in a 2020 military exercise

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was a tragedy that never should have happened. Nine service members drowned when their landing craft sank off the coast of Southern California in July of 2020. Now hearings are underway at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego. They're expected to shed more light on what exactly happened that day. Steve Walsh with KPBS has the story.

CARLOS BALTIERRA: People have brought things from all over the world. I mean, people that we don't know have painted portraits.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Carlos Baltierra gave me a quick Zoom tour of his Southern California home. It's filled with memorabilia about his 18-year-old son, Bryan, who drowned a year and a half ago. It was the deadliest accident in the long history of the AAV. Eight Marines and a sailor died when their landing craft, which looks almost like a small floating tank, sank in the waters off the coast.

BALTIERRA: What is it that made people, individuals, understand that this AAV is good to go into the ocean?

WALSH: That day, Bryan texted his father that they were looking for transmission fluid. Their vehicle broke down on San Clemente Island. Eventually, they were ordered into the water so they could head back to their ship with the other AAVs.

BALTIERRA: This could have been 100% preventable. It was just a reckless decision that was made by the military, the Marines, whoever was in command there.

WALSH: Reports released by the Marines show the crafts used that day had a history of mechanical breakdowns. Some of the Marines had not passed their swim test. The unit was stretched between exercises as they prepared to deploy. From the time the troop carrier began taking on water, their leadership had 45 minutes to get the young Marines to safety before their craft finally sank.

JONATHAN WONG: What I call a get-'er-done attitude.

WALSH: Jonathan Wong is a former Marine officer. He's now a policy director at the RAND Corporation.

WONG: I think that is the kind of root cause of the accident. It's the belief, the sunny optimism that particularly, you know, officers and non-commissioned officers in the Corps have where they're handed something to do, and they're going to get it done. They're not going to complain.

WALSH: This week, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Regner, who was in charge of the battalion, faces either being kicked out of the Marines or potentially retired at a lower rank. So does the platoon sergeant for Bravo Company. Three other Marines are expected to go through a similar hearing process in the coming weeks. Wong has been following the fallout of the deadly accident.

WONG: They should have, you know, realized that they were overstretched and tried to slow things down, but that kind of attitude is really pervasive. I certainly felt it when I was in the Marine Corps.

WALSH: AAVs, or amtracs, were built mainly in the 1970s. The Marines have tried to replace them for decades, but the expense, red tape and prototype delays meant it hasn't happened yet. Just as the hearings into the officers were set to get underway, the Marine Corps pulled the AAVs from sea duty, saying the risk of failure was too high.

ALETA BATH: Too little, too late.

WALSH: Aleta Bath is the mother of 19-year-old Pfc. Evan Bath. She says the Marines have not gone far enough. Some officers lost their command. No one has been charged criminally. She is traveling from her home in Wisconsin to be in the room for every hearing.

BATH: This is the only justice we get, and it's not really justice. But this is all we get. And so I will be there for every single one. It's my son. He was my only child. They took everything from me.

WALSH: She's still in regular contact with the surviving members of her son's unit.

BATH: And I love these boys. I don't want another phone call. So somebody needs to step up, and they need to change.

WALSH: For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.