Bourque was the fiancée of the late 1st Lt. Conor McDowell, USMC, and is an advocate for military training and safety reforms. She lives in Washington, D.C.
“Death traps … that’s what those are. You know I’m not afraid of much, but if there’s one thing that scares the hell out of me, it’s the AAV. They don’t actually float or swim, they just sink very slowly, until they sink very quickly. I’ve got so much respect for the guys who willingly get inside them every day.”
Conor McDowell, my fiancé and a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, kept his hands on the steering wheel as we drove past the lot where the 64,000-pound Amphibious Assault Vehicles sat in the hot San Diego sun. I quietly stared at their impressive size.
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A few months later, on May 9, 2019, Conor’s Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) rolled over during a routine training operation at Camp Pendleton, killing him.
About a year later, on July 30, 2020, eight Marines and one sailor were killed while training in an AAV off the California coast — the deadliest AAV-related accident in Marine Corps history.
In the investigation report, AAV readiness was listed as a major causal factor. The vehicle was deemed “inoperable,” yet it was still sent out in a hurried push to train the Marines.
Navy Hospital Corpsman Savannah Henne, 23, lost her fiancé, Navy Hospital Corpsman Christopher Gnem, 22, in the preventable accident.
When I talked to her about the AAV’s unfit condition, she said, “Taking the AAV out despite it being deemed inoperable was a show of complete disregard for human life and was beyond irresponsible. We always know there is a risk with what we do, we signed the contract, but we don’t sign up to die in a training accident.”
Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi was the commanding general for the 1st Marine Division from 2017 until September, when he became the inspector general of the Marine Corps. He was suspended from his position last month following the AAV investigation. Castellvi’s suspension was announced during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.
At that hearing, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, warned, “We are not going to rest until people are held accountable, and we can make sure that this kind of conduct is not tolerated, because it was conduct at the highest levels that allowed these AAVs to be deployed.”
This is not the first time a failure like this has occurred.
When I read the damning information about the AAV conditions, I remembered a separate conversation with Conor.
Conor told me he had heard that a different company in 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance used an inoperable LAV while in the field at Camp Pendleton. Conor explained that the inoperable LAV was one of the vehicles that had just come back from a Marine Expeditionary Unit, an expeditionary quick-reaction force, and needed extensive repairs.
“Those things are already old, and they get beat to s— on deployments. Why the hell anyone would OK taking that LAV out after it just got back from the MEU is beyond me. If anything bad had happened with that pig while they were in the field … I mean, someone could have died. Heads should be rolling, and someone needs to get fired but nothing has happened because it’s being hushed up.”
He added, “If you don’t have enough safe equipment to go through with the training safely, just cancel the damn thing until you’re ready! It’s training, for crying out loud, and you can always reschedule it. I’m sure the Marines would have appreciated that anyway.”
Military training is inherently dangerous; however, these inexcusable mistakes are quite literally costing the lives of our loved ones. It raises the questions: Who exactly is paying attention, and why are they allowing this to continuously happen? Who ensures that damaged vehicles and equipment stay put until they are safe?
If the inoperable AAV had come back safely from the training operation, nothing would have been said about the vehicle not being in full working order before it was used. Nine young men had to die in order for this grave error to come to light, and for someone to be held accountable.
It took nine families getting a knock on the door from the angels of death wearing dress blues.
“On behalf of the United States Marine Corps, we regret to inform you …”
Navy Hospital Corpsman Christopher Gnem; Cpls. Wesley Rodd and Cesar Villanueva; Lance Cpls. Marco Barranco, Guillermo Perez and Chase Sweetwood; and Pfcs. Bryan Baltierra, Evan Bath and Jack Ryan Ostrovsky.
May they rest in eternal peace.