When Reckless Military Training Creates Preventable Deaths, Accountability Must Go to the Top

Michael H.C. McDowell is a Fellow in New America’s International Security Program.

A major congressional hearing early this month revealed that Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi has been temporarily removed from his duties as Marine Corps Inspector General following outrage at his being exonerated in the horrific drowning deaths of eight Marines and a Navy corpsman in an amphibious assault vehicle, or AAV, off the California coast last July.

Tellingly, no official announcement was made until Rep. Jackie Speier, a key Armed Services subcommittee chairperson, put Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas on the spot, asking him directly about Castellvi’s standing, and got a clearly reluctant confirmation.

Sadly, this encapsulates the lack of true “leadership” — not only in the Marine Corps, but in all the services — when truly bad things happen. The instinct of many generals and admirals is to protect their fellow “stars,” instead engaging in a shameful game of shifting blame down — dishing out penalties to lower-ranking officers and noncommissioned officers but almost never to themselves.

Castellvi, in one of the worst military training disasters ever on U.S. soil, was found to “bear some responsibility” for the lack of safety training. His job description prioritized readiness, preparedness and safety. But Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, head of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, who endorsed the disaster inquiry report, recommended no action be taken against him.

At Castellvi’s change of command ceremony at Camp Pendleton, California, less than two months after the drownings, he said, “The division is at its most ready state.”

At the same event, his boss, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, praised Castellvi for exceptional performance, saying, “‘Cas’ has been exceptional from readiness, across the board.”

Heckl, addressing Castellvi, continued, “Are you leaving this command in a better place than you found it? That’s an unequivocal yes.”


Full disclosure: My son, Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, 24, was needlessly killed at Camp Pendleton in an earlier, preventable training disaster, when his Light Armored Vehicle, or LAV, rolled over. He was killed instantly, as the vehicle toppled into a hidden crevasse that range inspection had overlooked. My wife, Susan Flanigan; my son’s fiancee, Kathleen Bourque; and I all met Castellvi at Conor’s memorial at the base. We were uncomfortable with the way he handled the Line of Duty report, despite it exonerating Conor from any blame.

We are indeed proud that Conor’s men, who loved him, told us in person and in signed official documents that “he saved our lives.” Heartbreakingly for us, Conor couldn’t save himself.

Conor loved the idea of the Marine Corps but, in a few short months, he became disappointed with his chain of command; cynical; and frustrated at the chronic lack of readiness of the LAVs he was to lead, which were often in wretched condition and dangerous. Conor was a positive, happy, smart warrior, but the reality of Pendleton changed his sunny initial perspective. Castellvi was also in charge of the LAV unit.

Only pressure from the grieving families of the nine young men who died in the AAV accident, some of them still in their teens, and anger from Speier and Rep. John Garamendi, both D-Calif., led to Castellvi’s suspension.

But the rest of the Marine “leadership” also must answer for shirking accountability and responsibility and shifting criticism to those below them.

The old boys’ network at the general officer level has regularly allowed “leadership” to rot, like a fish, from the head down. Throwing Castellvi under the bus is not good enough. His superiors must not be allowed to escape unscathed and use him as their sacrificial lamb.

Importantly, Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, specifically appointed Castellvi to the key post of inspector general, which conducts major inquiries and inspections. It beggars belief that he did so after the fiasco in the ocean that claimed nine lives.

Let us look at Berger’s public comments on readiness and safety. In a Feb. 21 Washington Post opinion article with Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, Berger wrote, “The U.S. military must define ‘readiness’. … Every year the United States commits billions to building it, developing metrics to measure it, and striving to create and maintain more of it — but what exactly is readiness? … Readiness is fundamentally about preparedness for combat — having the right equipment, training and maintenance to succeed on current and future battlefields. Unfortunately, the high operational tempo of the past two decades has distorted the understanding of readiness. Readiness has become synonymous with availability. In other words, a ready unit is one that is available for immediate deployment — prepared to ‘fight tonight.'”

Speier and Garamendi complained rightly that, by passing blame down, generals and admirals create a toxic culture where warnings from below about safety, readiness and preparedness will be treated with scepticism and may possibly lead to demotions and damage the careers of those who shout “Stop!”

“We are not going to rest until people are held accountable,” Speier said. “It was conduct at the highest levels that allowed the AAVs to be deployed [in the deaths last year].”

She further complained that the military regularly “transfers” senior commanders who make major mistakes. “Maybe we need to speak to some of those who have been fired to find out where the pressure was coming from that required them to move forward with this exercise. This was a death trap in which were put these service members, nine of whom are now dead.”

At the same hearing, AAVs were also called “death traps” by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a former enlisted Marine who worked in them for seven months in Iraq.

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine officer, commented that he and his men refused to ride inside an AAV when it was in the ocean, fearing it would sink, and instead sat outside the vehicle so they could escape to safety if necessary.

Then why are these death traps still being used? There are no new ones.

It is time for the American people, through their elected representatives, to hold our military leaders far more accountable and responsible when reckless training creates preventable deaths.

It is the least the nine mourning families and their sons deserve.

— The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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