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Marine colonel, Silver Star recipient, relieved of command after an investigation into the death of eight Marines

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Christopher J. Bronzi, center, commanding officer of 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, gives his remarks during the closing ceremony for Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Feb. 21. Exercise Iron Fist exemplifies the spirit of trust and cooperation between the U.S. Marine Corps and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Anabel Abreu Rodriguez)

Erika I. Ritchie

The Orange County Register

A Marine Corps colonel — once awarded a Silver Star for combat in Iraq — has been fired from his command of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the ongoing fallout from the Marine Corps investigation into the deadly training accident that killed eight Marines and a sailor off San Clemente Island in July.

In an early morning announcement Tuesday, March 23, from Hawaii, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, relieved Col. Christopher J. Bronzi.

As the commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Bronzi was in charge of all the ground, air and logistics components that make up a unit, which includes more than 2,200 service members. It is a command that is among the most visible and prestigious a colonel would typically aspire to. There are only a few of these positions across the Marine Corps and often leads to a promotion to general.

“Bronzi was relieved due to a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to command, following completion of the command investigation into the assault amphibious vehicle mishap which occurred off the coast of San Clemente Island,” Rudder said in a statement. Bronzi is on deployment with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Middle East.

Rudder placed Col. Fridrik Fridriksson in command of 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Fridriksson previously commanded the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

On July 30, after a training raid on the island off Southern California, 13 AAVs and their crews left the northwest beaches 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. On board were 16 service members.

Half were able to escape the vehicle. One, Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, was pronounced dead on the scene while two other Marines were rushed to the hospital.

Still onboard when the AAV sank were Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, a rifleman; Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, a rifleman; Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman; U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, a hospital corpsman; Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman; Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 22, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman; Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman; and Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, a rifleman.

The bodies of the seven Marines and a sailor were found inside the 26-ton vehicle on the ocean floor after a several-days search and raised on Aug. 7.

The firing is the second public announcement in the fatal AAV accident, said to be the most deadly in the Marine Corps history using the seafaring vehicles. In October, Lt. Col. Michael J. Regner was relieved of command by Lt. Gen. Karsten S. Heckl, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Regner, a decorated Marine who served on multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded the 1st Battalion/4th Marine Regiment on Camp Pendleton. At the time of his firing, Heckl said it was based on “a substantial amount of information and data” related to the at-that-time ongoing AAV command investigation being done at Camp Pendleton.

A command investigation reviews the operational aspects, including the vehicle’s watertight integrity, the leadership and whether training protocols were followed. That report, now complete, is being delivered this week to the families of the men who died.

During that same time, the company commander of Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion/4th was also relieved of command “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.”

Marine Corps officials at the time did not name the company commander but said he served as a subordinate commander to Regner.

Bronzi is a native of Poughquag, New York. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1996. He first reported to Camp Pendleton with the 2nd Battalion/4th Marines in June 2003, where he served as company commander.

Bronzi attended several prestigious schools — including the United Kingdom’s Advanced Command and Staff Course in Shrivenham, England — where he graduated in 2010 with a master of arts in defense studies from King’s College London.

Bronzi assumed command of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in September 2012. During that tour, he deployed as Battalion Landing Team 1/4 with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. That landing team was now part of his command.

Bronzi held all the key commands typical along the path to become a battalion, regimental and most recently a Marine Expeditionary Unit commander.

He assumed command of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in November 2019.


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