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Parents of 9 service members killed in training accident still want answers

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Military hearings are underway in the tragic drowning of eight marines and a sailor two years ago. They died off the coast of California in a training exercise gone wrong. Their parents are still looking for answers and justice. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS has been following their story.

LUPITA GARCIA: Very loving boy - loved his dad, his sisters, me.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: It's been over 18 months since Lupita Garcia's son was killed in a training accident. Twenty-one-year-old Lance Corporal Marco Barranco drowned along with eight other troops when his vehicle sank off the coast of Southern California in July 2020.

GARCIA: I always thought the military was very organized. They knew what they were 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 was all these flaws, maybe, all these accidents, I would have talked to my son about it.

WALSH: Garcia wanted to meet me at a park in Montebello, just east of LA. When he was still in high school, Marco worked out in this park with a group of Marines to prepare him to enlist. His name has since been added to a local veterans' memorial at the other end of the park.

GARCIA: I believe in God. I have faith. And sometimes I just say, this is what God wanted. But then I don't accept that it was in training. That's what really, really gets me so angry. Why in training?

WALSH: Garcia is among a group of parents who have sat in the audience during a series of hearings at Camp Pendleton, hearings to determine whether some of the leaders involved that day will be kicked out of the corps.

GARCIA: It's just - doesn't end to hear all that, but, yeah, I just didn't feel anything like, oh, OK, I feel better now - absolutely not.

WALSH: July 30, 2020, eight Marines and one sailor drowned returning to the USS Somerset from San Clemente Island in an amphibious assault vehicle. The armored personnel carriers become boats in the water. Some of the aging vehicles broke down. Their unit was so far behind schedule that their shift moved away to another exercise. Their commander was on board one of the ships. Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Michael Regner testified that in the confusion, he didn't understand which AAV was sinking. Forty-five minutes later, the track with Garcia's son went under, with several troops still fighting to get out.

ALETA BATH: I don't feel like we're getting justice. All I hear in these boards - they're going in circles pointing fingers at each other.

WALSH: Aleta Bath is the mother of 19-year-old PFC Evan Bath of Wisconsin. She has been at nearly all of the hearings. At least three officers in charge that day have been allowed to stay in the corps. Each officer said they told their commanders about problems. None of them stopped the exercise.

BATH: They're supposed to be Marines, but no one's taken responsibility, and no one is being held to be responsible. So me sitting in that chair, if nothing else, they have to look at me.

WALSH: The Marines and Navy produce multiple reports pointing to serious lapses in training and equipment breakdowns. And this isn't the only accident. Sixty Marines have died in training in the last five years. Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is on the House Armed Services Committee. Moulton is also a former Marine officer who rode on an AAV in combat.

SETH MOULTON: I was worried they might sink, and that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment.

WALSH: He says they didn't feel safe riding inside the vehicle while crossing a river leading into Baghdad during the initial invasion, so they rode on top.

MOULTON: This gets back to the culture. If I had that concern as a young second lieutenant 20 years ago, then, you know, why has the Marine Corps not satisfactorily addressed that since then?

WALSH: It took another 18 months after the accident for the Marines to finally pull the aging AAVs from sea duty. Moulton says the harder question is whether the Marines can create a culture where officers are empowered to halt an exercise when they see a problem. Nancy and Peter Vienna's son, Navy Hospital Corpsman Christopher Bobby Gnem, drowned that day. Survivors told them what they saw.

PETER VIENNA: We asked them, what was he doing at the end? 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.

WALSH: Their son was one of the troops who was allowed in the exercise though he hadn't passed his required swim tests.

VIENNA: The boys were in the dark. A couple of them had snuck cellphones, which they weren't supposed to, but they were using their cellphones for light to try to see. And it wouldn't have mattered anyway because they never got egress training.

WALSH: Technically, they aren't even gold star families. Congress reserves that title for families of those killed in combat, not training.

GARCIA: I'd rather have my son die in combat because I would have been prepared for this. (Crying) I would accept it so much more because I knew this was his job. They would ask me, it's been almost two years. Why are you still mourning? I'm like, because I can't accept this. I don't get to have an open casket. I don't get justice.

WALSH: You never saw him again.

GARCIA: I didn't get to tell him I love you.

WALSH: For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.