Erika I. Ritchie
The Orange County Register
The Secretary of the Navy has censured five officers in a 2020 training accident in which nine men died when the amphibious assault vehicle they rode in sank off San Clemente Island.
It was the deadliest accident in the decades the Marine Corps has used the vehicles that can carry troops on land and in the sea. Three of the Marines who died hailed from Southern California: Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello and Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 19, of Corona.
Censure letters detailing leadership failures written by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro will go permanently into the service records of the five officers – two members of the Navy, which was supporting the training exercise, and three members of the Marine Corps – Navy officials announced Monday, June 13.
“When leaders’ actions or inactions result in the loss of life or capital resources, the senior leadership of the Department of the Navy has a responsibility to determine the root cause and hold those accountable,” Del Toro said in a message sent to the Department of the Navy on June 2, adding that after a thorough review the officers received the censure “due to their inadequate leadership and execution of their oversight duties.”
Del Toro is the Navy’s top civilian leader.
Receiving the censure letters are retired Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, Col. Christopher Bronzi, Navy Capt. Stewart Bateshansky, Navy Capt. John Kurtz and Marine Lt. Col. Keith Brenize.
Officers cannot appeal the censure, but they can rebut in writing and have it included in the record. Officials with the Secretary of the Navy office said “it is unclear what effect the letters will have on the officers’ careers.”
Three separate investigations – two by the Marines and one by the Navy – agreed a domino of failures in training, equipment and adherence to safety protocols and standard procedures occurred leading up to the accident, which military leaders have called preventable.
Where the previous Navy investigation put little fault of the accident on its commanders and crews, Del Toro said he did see “gaps and seams” in planning the exercise, its execution and attention to safety, which he said “could have been controlled.”
Del Toro also has before him the recommendations of six weeks of review boards on whether several officers and enlisted Marines should be removed from the Corps for substandard leadership. No decision on those has been announced, but the boards only recommended one removal.
Monday’s announcement was met with some relief by family members of those killed in the AAV.
Peter Ostrovsky, father of Lance Cpl. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, said he was “heartened” to see the action taken by Del Toro “to ensure all of those responsible are held accountable,” adding that of the five to receive the censures, four never went before any board hearings.
“It shows me the civilian leader wasn’t satisfied with the accounting of the Marine Corps and Navy,” he said.
Ostrovsky said in reading the letters, he saw details he had pointed out during Congressional hearings held last year.
“I guess someone is paying attention to all of it,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Carlos Baltierra, father of Pfc. Baltierra, said he received only limited information on the secretary’s decision.
“I’m disappointed, there was no written document provided to the families,” he said. “We’re still fighting to get information on what happened and what occurred that they’re not telling us.”