State Capitol flags at half-staff for Marines, sailor killed in training accident

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNS) – Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that flags at the state Capitol be flown at half-staff Tuesday in honor of the eight Marines and one Navy sailor who died when an amphibious assault vehicle sank during a training mission last week near San Clemente Island.

“Jennifer and I were heartbroken to learn of the loss of nine service members in an accident off San Clemente Island,” Newsom said in a statement. “It is a painful reminder of the sacrifice of members of our armed forces, who put their lives on the line for us. We stand united in mourning with their families and fellow Marines and sailors.”

The amphibious troop-transport vehicle was en route to a waiting ship about 80 miles off the coast of Encinitas about 5:45 p.m. last Thursday when it started taking on water for unknown reasons, according to Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of 1st MEF.

Seven members of the Camp Pendleton-based crew survived the accident. Medics took two of them to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where both were admitted in critical status. One was upgraded to stable condition as of Sunday night, Marine officials said.

The other five rescued Marines received clean bills of health and returned to their units.

Lance Cpl. Guillermo S. Perez of New Braunfels, Texas, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Perez was a rifleman with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The 15th MEU, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group worked for nearly two days to locate more survivors, but they concluded the search-and-rescue operation Saturday after 40 hours of searching across 1,324 square miles.

The other eight lost service members were identified as:

  • Pfc. Bryan J. Baltierra, 18, of Corona, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Lance Cpl. Marco A. Barranco, 21, of Montebello, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Pfc. Evan A. Bath, 19, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Christopher Gnem, 22, of Stockton, a Navy hospital corpsman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Pfc. Jack Ryan Ostrovsky, 21, of Bend, Oregon, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Cpl. Wesley A. Rodd, 23, of Harris, Texas, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU;
  • Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 19, of Portland, Oregon, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU; and
  • Cpl. Cesar A. Villanueva, 21, of Riverside, a rifleman with Bravo Company, BLT 1/4, 15th MEU.

The 26-ton amphibious vehicle went down more than 1,000 yards from a beach on the northwest side of the San Clemente Island in water several hundred feet deep.

The deadly accident will be the subject of an exhaustive investigation, according to USMC officials. The Undersea Rescue Command will use an underwater drone to search for the missing victims’ remains, with support from supply ship HOS Dominator, military officials said.

“Our thoughts and prayers have been, and will continue to be with our Marines’ and sailor’s families during this difficult time,” said Col. Christopher Bronzi, commanding officer of the 15th MEU. “The steadfast dedication of the Marines, sailors and Coast Guardsmen to the persistent rescue effort was tremendous.”

In a prepared statement released Monday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said “(a) grateful nation and the Department of Defense grieves the tragic loss … of these brave young men.”

“Their service, commitment and courage will always be remembered by the nation they served,” Esper said. “While the incident remains under investigation, I want to assure our service members and their families that we are committed to gathering all the facts, understanding exactly how this incident occurred and preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

San Clemente Island, one of the eight in the Channel Islands archipelago, is owned by the U.S. Navy and lies within the boundaries of Los Angeles County. Its military uses are administered by Naval Base Coronado.

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