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Esper pays tribute to 9 service members killed in training accident

Written by on August 3, 2020

The nine service members killed when a Marine landing craft sank in hundreds of feet of water off the California coast last week during a training exercise have been identified, military officials announced on Monday.

“A grateful nation and the Department of Defense grieves the tragic loss of the Marines and Sailor lost in the amphibious assault vehicle accident off the coast of San Clemente Island. Our prayers and condolences are with the family and friends of these brave young men,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement. “Their service, commitment and courage will always be remembered by the nation they served. While the incident remains under investigation, I want to assure our service members and their families that we are committed to gathering all the facts, understanding exactly how this incident occurred, and preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

Left to Right, top row: Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, of Corona, Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wis. Christopher Gnem, 22, of California. bottom row: Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood , 19, from Portland, Ore. Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Texas, Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, Calif. Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Ore. and Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, from Harris, Texas.

Left to Right, top row: Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, of Corona, Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wis. Christopher Gnem, 22, of California. bottom row: Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood , 19, from Portland, Ore. Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels, Texas, Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, Calif. Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Ore. and Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, from Harris, Texas.

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Only one of their bodies was found, despite an intense dayslong search involving helicopters and boats from inflatables to a Navy destroyer.

Found at the scene was Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 20, of New Braunfels Texas. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit announced that the others, from California, Texas, Wisconsin and Oregon, are “presumed dead.”

They include: Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, of Corona, California; Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California; Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin; U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Oregon; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 19, of Portland, Oregon; and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California.

They were aboard an amphibious assault vehicle that was heading back to a Navy ship Thursday evening after a routine training exercise when it began taking on water about a half-mile from Navy-owned San Clemente Island, off San Diego.

Other assault vehicles quickly responded but couldn’t stop the 26-ton, tank-like vehicle from quickly sinking, Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said.

“The assumption is that it went completely to the bottom” several hundred feet below, Osterman said. That was too deep for divers, and Navy and Coast Guard were discussing ways to reach the sunken vehicle to get a view inside it, Osterman said.

Seven other Marines were rescued from the water; two were in stable condition at a hospital, authorities said.

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All the Marines were attached to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at nearby Camp Pendleton. They ranged in age from 19 to early 30s and all were wearing combat gear, including body armor, and flotation vests, Osterman said.

The vehicle, known as an AAV but nicknamed an “amtrac,” for “amphibious tractor,” is used to take Marines and their gear from Navy ships to land.

The sunken craft, one of 13 involved in the exercise, was designed to be naturally buoyant and had three water-tight hatches and two large troop hatches, Osterman said.

The vehicles have been used since 1972, and continually refurbished. Marine Corps officials said Friday they did not know the age or other details of the one that sank.

The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. David Berger, suspended waterborne operations of more than 800 amphibious assault vehicles across the branch until the cause of the accident is determined.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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