Congress to Call Marine Commandant to Testify on Safety Lapses After Series of Fatal Accidents

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Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger testifies.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger testifies during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee about about ongoing reports of substandard housing conditions Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019 in Washington, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

House lawmakers will hold a congressional hearing next month to address what one member calls a lack of concern for safety in the Marine Corps after a series of fatal training accidents.

Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, said the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee will call on Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger to explain why there has been a recurrence of accidents in his service. The public hearing is scheduled for May 3, said Garamendi, who chairs the subcommittee.

There have been 84 on-duty deaths in the Marine Corps since Oct. 1, 2015, according to Naval Safety Center data. Only seven of those fatalities occurred in combat zones, Defense Department records show.

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"I trace all of these issues back to just a lack of concern about safety -- it's not there," Garamendi told Military.com. "That is not built into the Marine Corps' readiness."

Fatal Marine Corps training accidents have occurred in the air, on land and at sea. Midair collisions, vehicle rollovers and sinking amphibious vessels have all claimed the lives of Marines and sailors.

The latest investigation into one of those accidents, a waterborne disaster that killed nine troops near California, showed a string of failures across the chain of command that put 16 men in an unnecessarily dangerous situation ahead of their scheduled deployment.

"I want the commandant to explain to me why there's a continuation of Marine personnel [dying] in accidents of all kinds," Garamendi said.

Lawmakers have pressed military leaders on the frequency of training accidents in the past, including just last month. The May hearing will be unique in that it will focus solely on the Marine Corps, one of the military's smallest services.

Garamendi said the other branches "have their share of problems" as well, and that safety issues across the Defense Department remain a top concern for lawmakers.

"The Marine Corps is first, but not the last," he said.

Garamendi has for more than a year pressed the military services to better prevent training accidents. He was one of several members of Congress to call on the Government Accountability Office in 2019 to investigate a tragic string of vehicle rollovers and other accidents that killed at least 15 soldiers and Marines.

That investigation -- which is examining military policies on vehicle safety, how training ranges are inspected, and how accident data is collected -- is expected to be completed in coming months.

Marine Corps officials say they're committed to preventing another deadly accident like the July 2020 amphibious assault vehicle accident off California's coast that killed nine. The service is revising orders and policies on how units prepare to deploy and created a mishap library so leaders at every rank can readily view lessons from previous accidents.

The Marine Corps has also fielded a safety-management system based on the one the Federal Aviation Administration uses to assess risks, a safety expert told reporters last month following the investigation into the AAV accident. The goal is to help commanders better spot safety risks when training or employing a unit, he said.

"This is not what right looks like on the most basic level," the safety expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity said of the circumstances leading up to the AAV accident. "... We recognize that there are significantly better ways to [manage risks]."

Garamendi said the Marine Corps needs to change its entire cultural approach to safety and make it a top priority. "Checking the box" on training requirements should not be considered more important than the safety of Marines and sailors involved, he said.

Safety officers should approve training events ahead of time, and should be given the authority to shut them down if deemed unsafe, the congressman added. There are too many examples of investigators finding that exercises that turned deadly should not have occurred, he said.

"They're going to explain themselves on May 3," Garamendi said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: Marines Vow Safety Improvements After Fatal AAV Accident Reveals Serious Flaws

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