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3 Marine officers removed in wake of deadly mortar accident in Hawthorne, Nev.

May. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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Brig. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division, speaks outside the main gate at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the day after seven Marines were killed in a 60mm mortar explosion. Lukeman removed three officers from their positions on Tuesday, including the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. (Lance Cpl. Jackeline M. Perez Rivera / Marine Corp)

Three Marine officers, including a battalion commander, were removed from their jobs Wednesday in the wake of a disastrous training accident in Nevada that killed seven Marines and wounded eight other troops, Marine Corps Times has learned.

Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was dismissed along with two subordinates, Capt. Kelby Breivogel, commander of the battalion’s Alpha Company, and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring, the battalion’s infantry weapons officer. The decision was made by Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division, the battalion’s parent command, said 1st Lt. Peter Koerner, a spokesman.

Their dismissals come seven weeks after the March 18 tragedy at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. The infantry Marines were conducting nighttime training when a 60mm mortar round exploded in a mortar tube, officials said at the time. They had traveled to Hawthorne from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in nearby Bridgeport, Calif., where the battalion was participating in the last element of a winter mountain training exercise.

Attempts to contact McNulty, Breivogel and Derring were not immediately successful. They remain on active duty, but it’s unclear what their next assignments will be, Koerner said.

McNulty, who assumed command of the battalion less than a year ago, was relieved due to a “loss of confidence in his ability to continue to lead the battalion,” Koerner said. The battalion’s executive officer, Maj. Thomas Siverts, will oversee the unit until a new commander is selected, Koerner said. That is expected to take several weeks, he added.

The battalion is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan at the end of this year. The leadership shakeup is not expected to affect those plans, Koerner said.

Officials continue to investigate what happened at Hawthorne, Koerner said. However, preliminary findings were taken into consideration when Lukeman decided to relieve McNulty, he said. That investigation is now in its final stages, according to Marine officials.

Killed in the explosion were Pfc. Joshua M. Martino, 19; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor, 21; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork, 21; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV, 21; and Cpl. Aaron J. Ripperda, 26.

During a unit memorial ceremony in late April, McNulty spoke movingly of the sadness he felt attending seven funerals in seven days.

“Nothing said here today will replace the loss of our men, your sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, and fathers,” he said, according to a transcript released by the Marine Corps. “As we slowly come to grips with their absence in our lives, now is the time to embrace their spirits.”

Breivogel also spoke at the ceremony, eulogizing the six men within his company who had been killed.

“In a scene worse than you have or will likely face in Afghanistan/Iraq, your actions in that terrible moment were calm and fluid. You rose to meet gruesome hardship head-on and matched the heroic lore of The Walking Dead,” Breivogel said, referencing the battalion’s nickname. “NCOs took charge of the scene. Lance corporals took charge of the wounded, while corpsman feverishly worked to assess and treat injuries. And our PFCs and privates executed tasks with unflinching obedience to orders. You honored the legacy of these Marines, and I know you will continue carry their legacy with you.”

Following the accident, the Marine Corps suspended worldwide use of the M224A1 60mm mortar system involved in the incident. The military’s Joint Munitions Command also suspended the lots of ammunition fired at Hawthorne, with an exception for discretionary use by battlefield commanders pending the investigation’s completion. That moratorium remains in place, according to Marine officials at Pentagon.

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