“We have a mass cas! Mass cas! Mass cas!”
The radio call broke into the crisp Nevada night. A routine live-fire training operation splintered into a triage scene as corpsmen came running, sorting through shrapnel, carnage and equipment to aid the injured.
A command investigation into the tragic March 18, 2013, mortar explosion that killed seven Marines and wounded eight more troops, newly released to the Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, found the cause of the deadly blast was a double-loaded mortar tube, a human error exacerbated by insufficient training and lack of familiarity with the weapons system.
But these findings leave more questions unanswered, about the sequence of events that night and about the firings of two Marine officers and a seasoned warrant officer in the wake of the tragedy. For the families grieving the loss of a son or a brother, it’s likely that some doubts will always remain.
Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, had just completed a winter exercise at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., before the Marines arrived at the Hawthorne Army Depot at Hawthorne, Nev., for live-fire training. The Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based unit was freshly back from a four-month deployment to Kuwait, which had ended in January.
The company’s new commander, Capt. Kelby Breivogel, had transferred to the unit in February. About half of the company’s mortar section was relatively new, too, having come from an 81mm mortar platoon about eight months previously to switch to the smaller 60mm system. They hadn’t shot their mortars in Kuwait and they hadn’t done any mortar training together since January. But the unit had a reputation, and it was a good one: Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, commander of 1/9, told investigators that Alpha Company had one of the best mortar sections he’d ever dealt with.
“I know those guys were the freaking best, freaking always talking about knowledge,” said an 0351 assaultman with Alpha Company, who was interviewed by investigators. “Always freaking drilling their guys on the proper way to do things. ... I understand it, like completely understand why, now.”
The two-day training evolution at Hawthorne started off well enough. The section started with a daytime attack at the depot’s Range 500, firing about 12 rounds from three 60mm M224A1 mortar systems. But toward the end of the day, one of the tubes had a malfunction: the trigger system stopped working properly.
Section leaders decided to move forward into the night training with just two mortars, shuffling some Marines to new positions to accommodate the change.
Though McNulty didn’t know about the mortar adjustments late in the day, he observed a portion of the day training and said he was impressed.
“I went downrange and was surprised about how smooth it was running and how strong the command and control was,” he said. “I was confident; I had no concern that anybody was going to get hurt — it was just a matter of how well they would execute it — and it was a great run. It was on par with the other two companies, who had more experience, but everybody needs to have their first go, and this was theirs.”
Conditions were good for the planned night training; though overcast, the evening was no darker than it had been when the battalion’s Bravo and Charlie companies had trained on the range days before. Because of the terrain, the Marines were grouped tightly around the two weapons, in a position known as a “lazy V.” As they had done in day training, the Marines fired their weapons in handheld mode, using a trigger to send the rounds downrange.
McNulty and Breivogel observed the training that night from a machine gun hill a short distance away, listening for the booms and monitoring radio traffic. Others, too, were taking the opportunity to observe the spectacle of live-fire mortar training. A chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear officer, serving as the officer in charge for the range, observed the training from a side road about 10 feet away. He told investigators he called his Marines’ attention to the mortars as they began to fire.
“I turned my head to look at my Marine and tell him, ‘You know, this is some good s--- — you might want to keep your [night vision goggles] downrange and pay attention,’ ” the officer, who is unnamed in the report, said. “About that time is when the boom happened.”
The mortars section had shot off several illumination rounds first, then high-explosive rounds, according to the report. About three minutes into their training, an explosion came from the mortar position itself. The investigation determined that a Marine was loading a second round into the mortar tube when another Marine on the trigger fired the round already in the tube, shooting the half-loaded round downrange and causing the deadly blast.
Breivogel and McNulty knew something was wrong as soon as when they heard the explosion, and came running down the hill. The company commander began gathering up spent mortar rounds to clear them out of the way while the battalion commander conferred with the Marines performing casualty assistance and tallied up the dead and wounded. One severely wounded Marine held his own airway open with his fingers as he waited for help.
The first medevac helicopter touched down at an improvised landing zone near the blast site just before 11 p.m., barely an hour after the blast. But for a number of the Marines, it was already too late.
Those killed in the blast included Pfc. Joshua M. Martino, 19, of Dubois, Pa; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II, 20, of Polk City, Fla.; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23, of Fairfield, Conn.; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor, 21, of Marietta, Ohio; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork, 21, of Hickory, N.C.; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV, 21, of Anne Arundel, Md.; and Cpl. Aaron J. Ripperda, 26, of Madison, Ill.
Seven other Marines and a sailor were wounded.
The command investigation, which took nearly two months, involved nearly 30 interviews with Marine witnesses and range experts, cataloguing of evidence from the scene of the explosion, and analysis of the mortar tube by the Army’s Benet Laboratories, the support facility for large-caliber weapons systems.
Based on analysis, the equipment the Marines were using was fine, with no hairline fractures or faulty ammunition to cause a malfunction, according to the investigation report. The mortar tubes were new, and the one from which the blast originated had only fired off 43 rounds in its career. Early reports about the blast said it was caused by a single mortar round exploding in the tube, but the physical evidence began to tell a different story.
The 40-inch mortar tube was found raggedly sheared off. The tail assembly from the round that had been fired was discovered at the scene of the blast, and the second, half-loaded round was found damaged, but unexploded, about 82 meters downrange. While it’s not possible for a round’s fuze to fully arm inside a mortar tube, investigators found that the force of the fuze striking another object, the second round, inside the tube would be enough to partially arm the munition and cause a premature detonation.
As laid out in the investigation report, the evidence showing how the blast took place appears conclusive.
Less simple is the question of why it took place.
The Marines’ 60mm mortar system can be fired in two modes: from the ground using a bipod, sight and baseplate, or in handheld mode, which employs a smaller base and requires line-of-site firing and a trigger mechanism to fire rounds at will, rather than the conventional drop-in method, which fires them automatically when loaded.
The larger 81mm system, which a number of Marines in the mortar section had used in Afghanistan, doesn’t have the trigger option and can’t be used in handheld mode. Because of this, double-loads on the 81mm system are “virtually impossible,” the investigators state in their report.
The battalion gunner, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring, who served as the range safety officer for the exercise, told investigators that he told the mortar section to fire in the handheld mode because it had been some time since they trained with that method. But it wasn’t a controversial choice: McNulty said he felt that the handheld mode was actually a little safer for the Marines because they had to keep their eyes on the mortar barrel and therefore had a better chance of seeing if something was wrong.
The investigation would find that the “tight” positioning of the Marines in the mortar section around the two weapons contributed to the large number of casualties. Breivogel said he counseled his Marines on not crowding other squads’ positions, and McNulty said that, in retrospect, he would have increased the dispersion slightly. But both said they didn’t have a problem with the decision to consolidate three mortar teams into two after the daytime equipment malfunction, which put more Marines around the two weapons.
Another concern was speed: As Marines proceeded to “fire for effect” on notional targets in the dark, were they moving too fast to be careful?
The CRBN officer overseeing the range said he was watching the loading process with that concern in mind.
“They are often a little bit rushed — like they are trying to run too fast,” he told investigators. “But everything felt great. It was actually a really good run.”
The investigation ultimately found that four factors contributed to the tragedy: inadequate training and preparation for the complexity of the exercise; improper mortar gunnery commands and firing procedures; a “perceived sense of urgency and resultant haste” within the mortar section during the exercise; and a systemic lack of supervision of the mortar section during the exercise and in the months prior to it.
It notes, however, that the troop deaths and injuries “occurred in the line of duty and [were] not the result of misconduct on the part of any of the victims.”
The report calls for new Marine guidance regarding minimal distance between mortar systems and use of the handheld mode, and better training and procedures for safety officers and live-fire exercises.
McNulty, Breivogel, and Derring were all relieved from their posts at the unit, in accordance with the report’s recommendations.
A source close to the investigation said McNulty submitted a lengthy rebuttal to the investigation’s findings, but that was not provided to Marine Corps Times in response to the Freedom of Information Act request.
A Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe that took place at the same time as the command investigation is within days of completion, said NCIS spokesman Ed Buice. This investigation did not turn up any evidence of foul play, he said, and no one has been charged in connection with the incident.
For some of the families of the fallen, though, the officer reliefs aren’t enough to bring justice for their sons.
Karen Perry, mother of Pfc. Joshua Martino, said she felt the investigation did not do enough to explain how a double-loaded round — an extremely rare event with mortars — took place.
Reading comments on news stories and listening to Marines, she said, “You’ve got maybe 90 percent of people that feel there’s no way this could have happened.”
Even if the double-load did take place, she said, she feels the unit leaders should have been closer to the mortar section during the range exercise, and maybe the unit should have taken more time in training before attempting live fire. Nearly a year later, there are still so many frustrating unknowns for Perry.
“The ones who know are dead, and we’ve got this big, stupid report to read,” she said.
Roger Muchnick Sr., father of Lance Cpl. Roger Muchnick, said he, too, felt the Marines were underprepared after coming from Bridgeport, where some in the unit, including his son, had gotten sick.
“I don't think they had the right equipment. I don't think they had the right training schedule. I don't think they had anything,” he said. “I know these kids who were with Roger. They were careful. They were sick, they shouldn’t have ever been there.”
None of the relieved officers opted to comment for this story, but a career infantry Marine with close knowledge of the accident and the investigation expressed outrage at how the investigation was handled and its outcome.
The Marine, who asked that his identity be withheld for fear of reprisal, said the mortar section was well-prepared and had performed without a problem up until the fatal accident. Even coming from the harsh winter training at Bridgeport, the unit was in better shape than most. They were experts, he said, they were well-led, and they knew what they were doing. At the end of the day, he said, someone made a tragic mistake — a mistake that should not have led to three firings.
“The kid loading the mortars loaded two rounds,” he said.