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Parents unable to reconcile the loss of their sons after California Marine training accident

Lupita Garcia looks at the plaque with her son's name at a memorial in Montebello, California.
Steve Walsh
/
KPBS
Lupita Garcia looks at the plaque with her son's name at a memorial in Montebello, California.

Hearings have yielded few answers for parents after the tragic July 20 accident in which nine troops drowned off the coast of San Clemente Island.

Parents of eight Marines and a sailor who drowned off the coast of California in 2020 say they are worn down by a system that is slow to change.

After several reports, congressional testimony, and a series of hearings at Camp Pendleton to determine whether the leadership will remain in the Marines, Lupita Garcia said she does not feel any closer to justice.

“Very loving. Very loving boy. He loved his dad. He loved his sister. He loved me,” Garcia said about her son, Lance Cpl. Marco Barranco .

It’s been over 18 months since Garcia’s son was killed in a training accident. The 21-year-old Barranco drowned along with eight other troops when their vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California in July 2020.

“I always thought the military was very organized,” Garcia said. “They know what they're doing. And so I do feel guilty a bit because I didn't look more into it. Maybe if I would have known that there were all these flaws, all these accidents, maybe I would have talked to my son about it.”

Garcia wanted to meet at a park in Montebello, just east of LA.

It is where Barranco worked out when he was still in high school. The young man trained with a group of Marines who were helping him prepare to enlist. His name has since been added to a local veterans memorial at the other end of the park.

“I believe in God. I have faith. Sometimes I think this is just what God wanted, regardless,” Garcia said. “But I never accept that it was in training. That’s what really, really gets me so angry. Why in training?”

Garcia is among a group of parents who have sat in the audience during a series of hearings at Camp Pendleton which began in January. At least six officers and enlisted leaders face hearings to determine whether some of the leaders involved that day will be kicked out of the Corps.

“It just doesn't end,” Garcia said. “Our wounds are still open and they’re putting salt on it. To hear all that. But yeah, I just didn't feel anything like, 'oh, okay, I feel better now.' Absolutely not.”

On July 30, 2020, eight Marines and one sailor drowned while returning to the USS Somerset from San Clemente Island in an Amphibious Assault Vehicle or AAV. The armored personnel carriers become boats in the water. Some of the aging vehicles broke down. Their unit was so far behind schedule that, by the time they entered the water, their ship had moved away to another exercise.

RELATED: Marines ID All 9 People Killed In Training Accident

Three of the AAV’s had to be left on the beach because of mechanical problems. Another AAV broke down in the water and was being towed back to shore. Battalion Commander, Lt. Col Michael Regner was on board one of the ships off the coast.

Regner testified during his hearing that in the confusion he did not understand another AAV was sinking, and 45 minutes later the track with Garcia’s son went under, with troops fighting to get out.

“I don’t feel like we’re getting justice,” said Aleta Bath, the mother of 19 year old Pfc. Evan Barth of Wisconsin. “All I hear at these boards is they’re going in circles pointing figures at each other.”

Barth has been at nearly all of the Camp Pendelton hearings linked to the accident.

At least three officers in charge that day have been allowed to stay in the Corps. Each officer said they told their command about problems leading up to the exercise, but none of them stopped the exercise.

“They are supposed to be Marines but no one has taken responsibility and no one is being held to be responsible,” Bath said. “So, me sitting in that chair. If nothing else, they have to look at me.”

The Marines and Navy produced multiple reports pointing to serious laps in training and equipment breakdowns leading up to the exercise. The vehicles were taken off the so-called deadline lot, which meant they weren’t in working order when they were handed over to the Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

In May, the assistant commandant, General Gary Thomas told a House Armed Services Subcommittee that the Marines are trying to address serious problems with their safety culture.

“Honestly, I was worried that they might sink, and that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment,” said Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts who sits on the committee.

Moulton is also a former Marine officer, who rode on an AAV in combat.

His unit thought it would be safer to ride on top of the vehicle, while their vehicle was crossing a river leading into Baghdad during the initial invasion.

“This gets back to the culture," Mouton said. "If I had that concern as a young second lieutenant 20 years ago, then you know why hasn’t the Marine Corps not satisfactorily addressed that since then.”

Despite problems highlighted in reports released by the Marines and the Navy, it took nearly 18 months after the accident for the Marines to finally pull the aging AAV’s from sea duty.

Still, the Marines left open the possibility of using them in an emergency, which would potentially force Marines to operate them without training.

The Marines are rethinking the future, ditching tanks and other equipment. Moulton said they need to rethink this decision.

RELATED: Marine Commander Fired After Deadly Assault Vehicle Accident

“If the Marine Corps has decided in December that they're only going to use these vehicles in a crisis situation, I think we ought to ask how likely are those particular types of crises actually to occur,” Moulton said.

The harder question is whether the Marines can create a culture where officers are empowered to call a halt when they see a safety issue, according to Moulton.

Nancy and Peter Vienna’s son Navy Corpsman Navy corpsman Christopher Bobby Gnem drowned that day.

“We asked them (survivors) what was he doing at the end,” said Peter Vienna. “And he said for a while he was the guy that was joking around trying to make everybody stay calm. But what he was doing was trying to help other people take off their gear.”

Their son was one of the troops who was allowed in the exercise though he hadn’t passed his required swim test.

Equipment used to train Marines in how to get out of a sinking vehicle was broken during the run-up to the exercise. The Marines substituted a training device called the dunk chair, which doesn’t require Marines to navigate their way out of a submerged vehicle.

“The boys are in the dark,” Peter Vienna said. “A couple of them snuck their cell phones in, which they weren't supposed to but, they're using their cell phones for light. To try to try to see and it wouldn't have mattered anyway, because they never got egress training.”

Hearings have been going on since January at Camp Pendleton. It is the last opportunity for the families to receive some type of closure. So far, the process has not been what parents thought it would be.

It has been an isolating experience for many parents, even after sitting in the audience.

Because their sons were killed in a training exercise inside the US, technically they aren’t even Gold Star families. Congress reserves that title for the families of those killed in combat.

“I’d rather have him die in combat because I would have been prepared for this,” said Nancy Vienna. “I would accept it so much more, because It was his job and he's going to battle. This way, people ask me why it's been almost two years, why are you still in mourning? I'm like because I can't accept this, I don't get to have an open casket. I don't get justice, never saw him, I didn't get to tell him 'I love you.'”


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