The Marine Corps has officially relieved Maj. Gen. Robert Castellvi from his role as the inspector general of the Marine Corps, for failures that contributed to the deaths of nine service members in a 2020 amphibious assault vehicle accident.
Before taking over the inspector general position, Castellvi was commander of the 1st Marine Division and responsible for the training of the Marines of 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion and 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, prior to a deployment on the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
On July 30, 2020, while conducting a mechanical raid off of the California coast, an AAV with the MEU sank, resulting in the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor.
They were Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, California, a rifleman. Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, California, a rifleman. Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman. U.S. Navy Hospitalman Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, California, a hospital corpsman. Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 20, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman. Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 22, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman. Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman. Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, California, a rifleman. And Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, a rifleman.
An initial investigation by the Marine Corps found that the Marines were given faulty vehicles and were not fully trained prior to going on the deployment.
The vehicles the Marines were in were taken from the deadline lot and rushed into serviceability by overworked mechanics and crews, the first investigation found.
In addition to operating dangerously broken vehicles, the Marines in the 3rd AA platoon did not go through the mandatory predeployment assessment, in part because those in charge did not think it was mandatory for a platoon-sized element.
Only two of the infantry Marines riding the back of the AAV were fully trained on how to escape if the vehicle started to take on water.
Two of the service members were not even fully swim qualified.
The original investigation found Castellvi partially responsible for the failures that led to the tragic and avoidable accident, but ultimately recommended no adverse actions be taken against him because his failures could have been fixed after the Marines joined the MEU and “he was not the on-scene commander during the mishap.”
After the initial investigation was released, the families of the service members who died called on the Marine Corps to discipline Castellvi.
Joining the family members was Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.
“I must say, it’s a very painful thing for all of us, but I don’t quite understand how someone gets elevated to the position of an inspector general after being in charge of that particular disaster,” she said during an April hearing with the House Armed Services Committee.
In April, shortly after that hearing, Castellvi was suspended from his position as the Marine Corps inspector general, pending the results of a second investigation in the formation of the MEU by the Marine Corps.
The investigation was completed in May, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told reporters.
The commandant said he would discuss the results with acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker has to determine what actions should be taken.
The Marine Corps said on Wednesday that Castellvi will not be returning to his role as inspector general and that he received an official negative counseling from the commandant himself.
“The commandant personally and formally counseled him for his failure to properly train the Marines and Sailors for whom he was entrusted and for the inadequate evaluation of the AAV Platoon before it was attached to the 15th MEU,” Capt. Andrew Wood, a spokesman for the Marine Corps, told Marine Corps Times in an email.
“The commandant’s decision is part of Maj. Gen. Castellvi’s permanent record and must be considered if he is evaluated for promotion, retention, or roles of responsibility. This action typically prevents an officer from being promoted or serving in a role where he/she would be charged with the responsibility of caring for Marines and Sailors,” Wood added.
Wood said he was unable to speak on any other actions that may result from the second Marine Corps investigation.
For Michael H. C. McDowell simply counseling Castellvi and removing him from the inspector general position is not nearly enough.
McDowell lost his son, Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, 24, in a light armored vehicle rollover in 2019 and subsequently dedicated his life to eliminating training accidents from the Marine Corps.
He said by not taking harsher actions against Castellvi it sends a message down through the ranks that generals will be protected, despite their failures.
“This is a leadership issue. ... This is not leadership, the lack of leadership, the lack of accountability, the lack of taking responsibility is reflected downward,” McDowell said.
“Colonels all the way down through the enlisted watch what’s happening to the top and they, many of them will copy it and they will not speak out to dangerous vehicles and situations and cry stop,” he added.