Marine Commander relieved over mortar accident

| May 9, 2013 | 44 Comments

The Marine Corps Times reports that LTC Andrew McNulty, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, at Camp Lejeune, NC was relieved along with two other officers by BG James Lukeman, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division for the explosion during a mortar live fire exercise in Utah several weeks back which claimed the lives of CPL Aaron J. Ripperda, 26, 19; LCPL David P. Fenn II, 20; LCPL Roger W. Muchnick Jr., 23; LCPL Joshua C. Taylor, 21; LCPL Mason J. Vanderwork, 21; LCPL William T. Wild IV, 21; and PFC Joshua M. Martino.

McNulty, who assumed command of the battalion less than a year ago, was relieved due to a “loss of confidence in his ability to continue to lead the battalion,” Koerner said. The battalion’s executive officer, Maj. Thomas Siverts, will oversee the unit until a new commander is selected, Koerner said. That is expected to take several weeks, he added.

The battalion is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan at the end of this year. The leadership shakeup is not expected to affect those plans, Koerner said.

Unless they found a systemic maintenance issue in the battalion, I don’t know what the commander could have done to prevent the accident.

But there have been a lot of firings of officers in recent weeks. For example, 17 Air Force officers were relieved at Minot Air Force Base for “rot” in the nuclear force says WDAZ, and there’s no explanation of those firings either.

The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a “D’ grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better, but the group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided, after probing further, that an immediate crackdown was called for.

The Air Force publicly called the inspection a “success.”

But in April it quietly removed 17 officers at Minot from the highly sensitive duty of standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force’s most powerful nuclear missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike targets across the globe. Inside each underground launch control capsule, two officers stand “alert” at all times, ready to launch an ICBM upon presidential order.

How hard is it to pass a readiness test? Do fingers fit red button. Check. Can officer push the red button? Check. Pass.

Thanks to SJ for the link to the USMC story.

Category: Air Force, Marine Corps

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  1. David says:

    It seems like LTC McNulty couldn’t have done much about that accident – from what I know, it wasn’t a failing in safety standards or training, but just a horrible accident. But, unfortunately, that’s what officers are there for. When bad things happen and the military needs someone to blame, they have to fall on their swords.

  2. Hondo says:

    David: it’s one of the “bennies” of being in a leadership position at any level. The guy/gal in charge typically catches some degree of hell any time something bad happens. The worse the “bad”, the worse the hell.

    Having several people killed in a training accident is pretty “bad”, even if there isn’t a damn thing you could have done to prevent it. Sometimes it’s simply “wrong place, wrong time, sucks to be you”.

    The article goes on to ID the other two officers relieved as the Company Commander (Cpt) and the Company’s Weapons Officer (CW3).

  3. Ex-PH2 says:

    Here goes my theory: it’s an embarrassment to the administration.

  4. I would like to see what the basis was for his firing. Unless there was a complete lack of maintanance or disregard for weapons and ammunition handling The Bn Co and others are the sacrifical scapegoats. Its probably going to be one of those cases where because there isn’t a paper trail/class rosters and written SOPs and documentation they are going to assume the command was negligent in safety.

  5. OWB says:

    So, I am confused. Four dead is not sufficient to hold people accountable. This obviously is enough dead to hold people accountable, whether they were directly involved or not.

    What is the magic number who must die in an incident to warrant the command structure be held accountable?

    Someone remind me, please – the Marines are within the executive branch, right? Could be seen as precedent or past practice or something for how things operate within that branch of government?

  6. SJ says:

    Hondo: re “David: it’s one of the “bennies” of being in a leadership position at any level. The guy/gal in charge typically catches some degree of hell any time something bad happens. The worse the “bad”, the worse the hell.”

    Wish this applied to the “Commander in Chief”.

  7. USMC Chris says:

    Really unfortunate and you’re right, the story doesn’t give us a clue as to why the leadership team was relieved.

    However, can I be “that guy” and say that the rank abbreviations are incorrect and that you probably knew that but did it anyway?

    :)

  8. A Proud Infidel says:

    AMEN TO THAT, SJ!
    Commanders are held accountable for a lot of things, I’ve seen a CO get relieved because an EM lost a piece of COMSEC equipment (It was recovered a few hours later, but the S.I.R. [Serious Incident Report] had been sent). Relief for Cause is a death sentence for an Officer or NCO’s career! Was the mishap due to negligence in handling, training, or the Command Climate? There are a slew of unanswered questions in the details!

  9. Hondo says:

    Just an Old Dog: I have to admit I’m having a lot of trouble seeing how the Bn Cdr could be culpable enough to warrant relief. Barring either a very “loosey goosey” attitude towards safety in his Bn or the Bn Cdr being physically present during the incident and failing to stop some obviously stupid stuff, I can’t see why he should have been canned.

    The Co Commander is a harder call. Co Commanders have an immediate responsibility to ensure proper training and safety of their troops. But even there, unless there’s a whole lot more than meets the eye I’ve got my questions there, too.

    Wasn’t USMC or Infantry, so I won’t comment on the Wpns Off. He was closer, but commenting on his possible culpability is out of my area of expertise.

    My guess is that all were canned under the general theory of “the troops weren’t well enough trained” or “the equipment wasn’t well enough maintained”. And, unfortunately, as a practical matter there’s almost certainly not a damn thing any of them can do about it. From what I’ve seen reversing a relief for cause is virtually impossible.

    Damn near lost my second company commander years ago while in Korea to a reasonably similar incident. One soldier who was authorized to live off-post with his spouse died of carbon monoxide poisoning. (His wife also nearly bought it, but she pulled through.) IMO the only reason he was able to survive was that he’d dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s with respect to making sure their off-post quarters had all the necessary health and safety inspections, met safety requirements – and was able to document that he’d done that. (If I recall correctly, the cause was later determined to be a malfunctioning kerosene heater they’d purchased at the PX.)

    Still, it was touch and go for a while. But if he’d not been able to document that he’d done everything required to ensure the health/welfare/safety of that troop and that it was essentially an “act of God”, I’m reasonably sure he’d have been canned.

  10. Virtual Insanity says:

    And yet, we can all likely tell stories of those who were immediately responsible for deaths or horrible mishaps, should have been relieved, yet went on to annoy and disgust soldiers at ever-higher ranks and stationings.

  11. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    I think SJ has this pegged. We have the civilian leadership which whose rare claims of responsibility are empty because there are no consequences. Those who say “It is mine” are applauded. And nothing happens to them. Look at VA. How many who serve at the pleasure have been canned? Ditto the Benghazi fiasco. Then there is the military. Up to a certain level, anyway, responsibility still brings consequences. Fingersprints aren’t needed. If you were in charge, you pay. Again, that only works to a certain level.

  12. AvocationAviator says:

    I sat nuclear missile duty under Arkansas for 4 1/2 years. It was actually fairly difficult becuase it was extremely unforgiving. I made zero mistakes and was lucky. The problem is not the crew force but that Strategic Air Command went away removing an incredibly demanding environment of zero mistake nuclear preparedness. Expect more until: A)Nukes go away and peace breaks out or B)The US stands up a specified command designed to keep nukes safe, sound, and used only if ever needed (God help us). BTW, I left nuke missles to go be an aviator…much better life.

  13. Hondo says:

    AvocationAviator: the Titan II was indeed a very unforgiving mistress. One mistake could be – and on some occasions, was – deadly.

  14. Yat Yat 1833 says:

    Hondo, you hit the head right on the nail! Our Co CO had a nice chat with our Bn CO after a duh-head crewman forgot to put in a plug on his amtrac and it came within about 10 foots of sinking in the jetty at Del Mar (21 area) at Camp Pendleton. The crewchief, section leader, Plt Sgt, Plt Ldr, Co Gunny,1st Shirt and I think the Co clerk all came away from this fiasco missing about 5 lbs of a$$!

  15. Nik says:

    I would like to see what the basis was for his firing. Unless there was a complete lack of maintanance or disregard for weapons and ammunition handling The Bn Co and others are the sacrifical scapegoats.

    I have to consider the possibility that his firing had nothing to do with the incident. Maybe he was a shit CO. Note: I’m not saying he was. I’m not accusing him of anything, just throwing the possibility out there.

    Maybe he stepped on the wrong toes, laughed at the wrong joke, irritated the wrong CO’s wife.

    Could be that the accident was the nearest approximation of an excuse where he’d done something “bad”, but not “bad enough” for a firing.

  16. PavePusher says:

    There’s a bit more to an Air Force “readiness test” than “finger fits the button”.

    1. Google “Operational Readiness Inspection”.

    2. Google “missile silo explosion”.

  17. xbradtc says:

    So, have we ever heard why the explosion occurred? I’ve not heard any follow up on that. And I’d certainly be interested to know. That would also tend to inform my opinion on whether the relief of the BC is justified.

  18. DaveO says:

    An artillerist’s viewpoint: for the commissioned (and warrant?) command structure to be relieved, they knew ammo storage/use procedures were being violated and failed to ensure corrective action was taken. Screw up the seemingly picayune nit-noid administrivia, and you get an earth-shattering, career-ending kaboom.

    With the end of the war, the military’s Guardians are returning the force to the pre-war standards. LtCol McNulty won’t be the last commander relieved for acts of ommission.

  19. Robert says:

    During an Air Force ORI of a nuclear unit they have what they call a Nuclear Surety Inspection. Operators are all given written exams, some maintainers do also. If an operator performed poorly on that, or in the simulator under the watchful eye of an evaluator, it is common to be taken off mission capable status, pending remedial training and another check. They do the same thing to flight crew on a recurring basis.

  20. Al T. says:

    With mortars, the charge (propellent) is removed from each individual projectile as a means of adjusting range. Those “charges” are incredibly flammable and burn very hot very, very quickly. John will know more about this than I, but that scale of injuries and reliefs for cause indicates that failure to properly dispose of the “charges” may have resulted in a fire that detonated some projectiles…

  21. Hondo says:

    Al T: all I’ve seen published was that “a round exploded in the tube” w/o further details. Guess you could be right; we’ll have to wait for the formal report, I guess.

    DaveO: makes sense to me. It also could be overreaction by more senior leadership, but my perspective is that the USMC is usually rather resistant to “knee-jerk” reactions of that type.

  22. SJ says:

    Squids seem to be the most vicious at eating their young. Run a BGB (Big Grey Boat) aground…even if the Navy provided charts showed plenty of water, and the Capt et al walk the plank.

    Damned hard it seems in today’s grunt forces in a PC environment. You have 19 year old troopers handling high explosives and beasts of vehicles and there is shock when one of them makes a mistake…a mistake that a 30 year old might also make. I’ll geez a moment: in the 82nd in ’65 we invaded Dominican Republic. The day before it was a normal duty day. The next day, we were inundated with all the shit that we had had on back order for years and 18/19 year old troopers were given live ammo and grenades and, for the first time ever, there wasn’t an NCO yelling at them to keep their weapons pointed up and down range. I got gassed several times on day 1 in San Isidro and shot at several times by nervous troopers. Guess I should have been relieved for not adequately training my troopers.

  23. CC Senor says:

    Training accidents never look good on anyone’s report card. When your screwup gets attention on the floor of the Senate as ammunition in the sequester argument kissing your career goodbye seems like a foregone conclusion.

  24. Al T. says:

    “Al T: all I’ve seen published was that “a round exploded in the tube” w/o further details.”

    Hondo, me too. What led me to think a bit deeper was the BN CDR getting canned. If it was a “round exploding in the tube”, that’s pretty much an act of God. So, my tiny pea brain thought back to my days as an 81mm Mortar PL and that was the only dog that barked ala Mr. Holmes. ;)

  25. C2/2000AF says:

    Minot has had a history of problems with Officers and competence levels. I was in Netherlands in 2007 when Minot incident occurred, their incident caused a ripple effect across the air force. Minot officers probably were fired because they were part of units that failed their SAVs (Staff assisted Visits) and FEVs. Minot needed to tighten up the reigns for the last few years because of minor problems since that major incident. If anyone in the air force knows, its hard to get out of a base stateside now. Especially if you are in PRP or NEI code.

  26. Mike says:

    Speaking as a former mortar platoon leader (four-deuce, 6-track platoon, so I’m dating myself), here’s some speculation…

    1. If the failure was an explosion in or of the tube… Well, before I fired on any installation where we were not a tenant unit, I had to provide a certified copy of my mortar tube safety certifications (borescope & pullover), and the HHC company commander and the Battalion Commander had to sign off the certifications. These have to be backed up by maintenance records. It’s possible the battalion didn’t do this, or possibly faked the safety tests.

    2. If the explosion was “ready” ammo, then the ammo was being handled and/or stored improperly, as noted above by AT… and then it’s still the Company and Battalion Commander putting their asses on the line for signing off that training standards were met, which is the other prerequisite for a LFX.

    Either way… be careful what you sign. Not only what the document says, but what training or records back that document up.

  27. pete says:

    we lose 4 people in Benghazi because of sheer negligence by our alleged leaders and they get to skate?
    WTF OVER? our military is being decimated by these traitors.
    this accident should not be news until the investigation has been conducted

  28. Nik says:

    @27

    What do you expect, Pete? MSNBC reportedly had exactly 0 minutes of coverage. CNN had 17. Fox had 108.

    If people don’t seek the truth, and they don’t, it’s not going to really come to light.

  29. pete says:

    Roger that Nik

  30. As an old Army 11 Charlie, I can say that: “Mortars, killing the enemy and friends for over 150 years!”

    They are an ancient weapon that still can get in close and cover the grunts. They are heavy and hard to use, but in the right hands are deadly

  31. FatCircles0311 says:

    Marine Corps goes full retard a lot. This is a clear case of that. How the BLT CMDR gets relieved over this makes no sense. Might as well start tossing out S1 officer because some PFC in another company got a DUI. It’s in the same illogical universe.

  32. ItAllFades says:

    @31 Gotta overreact and fire someone, right? That’ll look like you did something to solve the problem.

  33. Lostboys says:

    It might be too much to ask that a military newspaper knows the difference between ‘dismissed’ and ‘relieved’.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Hi ho, it’s peacetime we go…

  35. Twist says:

    I’ve seen people relieved for something they had no control of before. In Iraq in 09 we were no longer allowed to drive our Strykers in blackout. We had a PL in the lead vehicle driving in blackout and get into an accident with a local national vehicle. The PSG who was in the Stryker 4 vehicles back, who had no way of knowing the PL was using blackout, and the PSG was the one who got relieved.

  36. USMCE8Ret says:

    @31 – “Full on retard” is right. It appears the Corps is doing some house cleaning, lest they get caught in the impact area unaware like some of the other services.

    This happened last month, and I found it curious (surrounding the relief of the OCS CO, from the Marine Corps Times…)
    http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/article/20130425/NEWS/304250001/Commandant-relieves-Officer-Candidates-School-commander

  37. Hondo says:

    FatCircles0311: all the services do, amigo. But from my perspective the USMC seems to “knee jerk” somewhat less than the other three.

  38. MGySgtRet says:

    Spent almost 24 years in the Corps and I have seen this quite a bit. Leaders take the hit for accidents in the Marine Corps. ESPECIALLY accidents causing death. Very little pussy footing around. If there is any whiff of negligence, people are going down. The current Commandant, General Amos, has been on a rampage lately and is holding his senior leaders accountable. As was stated in an earlier post, the Commandant recently fired the CO of OCS (a command billet that is hand picked personally by the Commandant) for a murder/suicide.

    Unlike some other commentator’s here, I have no problem with the relief of leaders when their people get hurt or killed. It would seem to be a reminder that command is a sacred responsibility and you are accountable for all that your people do or fail to do. It may seem unjust to some since the Battalion Commander was not present when the accident with his mortar section occurred and he certainly cannot be everywhere at once, but the buck has to stop somewhere.

  39. ggt1_02 says:

    The three Marines relieved were the Bn Cmdr, Co Cmdr and the Bn Infantry Weapons Officer (a CWO3). There may have been some SNCOs and NCOs who also were sent away but was not released. There appears to have been some leadership and discipline issues with this Bn while on the mountain at Bridgeport just prior to this incident.

    My Bn had an incident involving 81mm mortars and a casualty in 2000 at AP Hill. It was a company assault range supported by 81′s, the line company in question was the last of the three companies to run the range. Upon completion the company formed up to march off of the range, the range was cold. The 81′s had remaining rounds and told from someone to fire them off. The range is still cold. The original impact area was a fair distance from the target area where the line company was assembled. Somehow the tubes were now pointed at this area instead of the impact area when rounds were sent down range. Cpl Kokalev was hit with a sliver of shrapnel that was too small to be found by the Corpsman on the scene.

    Our Bn Cmdr, Bn Weapons Officer, India and Weapons Co Cmdrs, the 81′s Plt Cmdr and a few SNCO’s and NCOs were sent away.

  40. Hondo says:

    MGySgtRet: by that logic the entire USMC Chain-of-Command – up to and including the POTUS – should be looking for a new job, then. The POTUS gets a break because he’s elected for a fixed term. But everyone else should be gone, right?

    Yes, I’m being facetious – mostly.

    At some point, the ability to exercise immediate and direct control (and thus affect individual actions quickly enough to make a difference in such a case) becomes so tenuous that persons above that point cannot legitimately be held accountable. The question is where to draw that “cut line”.

    Loosey-goosey command climate for safety, training, or maintenance? Yeah, the Bn Cdr probably should legitimately go. Ditto if discipline was lax, training was substandard, he didn’t ensure the proper certifications, etc . . . . In those types of cases, IMO he made one or more errors of commission or omission that indirectly cost lives.

    But if some guy who knew better simply slipped and made an unfortunate one-time mistake with a round and blew himself (and several others) up? Well, that may well a different story.

    Same is true for the CO and WO, but in those cases it’s much harder to justify giving them a pass. They were closer to the situation and presumably had more direct influence.

    We don’t know the details, so we can’t really assess this one fully. The USMC may never make enough info public to let outsiders be able to do that.

    But if this is a “knee jerk” where one or more people were used as unjustified “fall guys” in order to save a more senior guy’s career – I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be the first time.

  41. MGySgtRet says:

    Hondo, agree completely with you. I have no respect for leaders who make “knee jerk” decisions. And I can honestly say that during my illustrious career, while I saw and was aware of leaders being relieved for a variety of reasons, I never saw anyone relieved in order to save the dude senior to them. Not that I was aware of anyway.

    What you will normally find out once the investigation is done, is that there was some hinky shit going on in that unit prior to the incident which led to reliefs. I imagine that will be the case here too.

  42. Sustainer says:

    Sorry to hijack the thread, but I just I just wanted to take it in another direction for a second.

    In my non-Reserve life, I am a high school administrator. Roger M. was one of the Marines killed in the accident, and was a 2008 graduate of my high school. Roger graduated as I was finishing my Iraq deployment.

    He truly found a family and a brotherhood in the Marine Corps. Those of us who have been part of the military for any period of time could have predicted that.

    He will be missed by all here at my school.

    Rest in peace, Semper Fi, brother.

  43. jerry920 says:

    Al T. You’re right about the propellent charges. I’ve seen the results of not disposing of them correctly. A melted M106 mortar track. Luckily no one was killed in that little escapade.

    My unit was responsible for inspecting the mortar tubes of the 2nd Brigade, 2AD. Loose base caps, loose or eroded pins, worn out, cracked and split tubes. You name it, I saw it all. Every single defect like that would condemn the tube on the spot. Of course there is a standard that we followed to the letter as then some. People lives were at risk, so it there was any doubt, the tube was condemned.

  44. NHSparky says:

    Oh many and varied are the ways one can step on one’s crank. And yeah, when you have more admirals than ships, you don’t have to even go that far to lose your command.

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