Pentagon bans 60 mm mortar round after Marine deaths

A mortar shell explosion killed seven Marines and injured a half-dozen more during mountain warfare training in Nevada's high desert, prompting the Pentagon to immediately halt the use of the weapons until an investigation can determine their safety, officials said Tuesday.
Associated Press
Mar 20, 2013

 

The explosion occurred Monday night at the Hawthorne Army Depot, a sprawling facility used by troops heading overseas, during an exercise involving the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Several Marines from the unit were injured in the blast, authorities said.

The mortar round exploded in its firing tube during the exercise, Brig. Gen. Jim Lukeman said at a news conference at Camp Lejeune. He said investigators were trying to determine the cause of the malfunction.

The Pentagon expanded a temporary ban to prohibit the military from firing any 60 mm mortar rounds until the results of the investigation. The Marine Corps said Tuesday a "blanket suspension" of 60 mm mortars and associated firing tubes is in effect.

The Pentagon earlier had suspended use of all high-explosive and illumination mortar rounds that were in the same manufacturing lots as ones fired in Nevada.

It was not immediately clear whether more than a single round exploded, a Marine Corps official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak about an ongoing investigation.

Eight men under the age of 30 were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno with injuries, such as penetrating trauma, fractures and vascular injuries. One of them died, four were in serious condition, two were in fair condition and another was discharged, said spokesman Mark Earnest.

The identities of those killed won't be released until 24 hours after their families are notified.

"We send our prayers and condolences to the families of Marines involved in this tragic incident," said the force's commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox. "We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice."

The rescue was complicated by the remoteness of the site, which is favored because the harsh geography simulates conditions in Afghanistan.

The 60 mm mortar is a weapon that traditionally requires three to four Marines to operate, but it's common during training for others to observe nearby. The firing tube is supported in a tripod-like design and fires roughly a 3-pound shell, some 14 inches in length and a bit larger than 2 inches in diameter.

The mortar has changed little since World War II and remains one of the simplest weapons to operate, which is why it is found at the lowest level of infantry units, said Joseph Trevithick, a mortar expert with Global Security.org.

"Basically, it's still a pipe and it's got a firing pin at the bottom," Trevithick said. Still, a number of things could go wrong, such as a fuse malfunction, a problem with the barrel's assembly, or a round prematurely detonating inside the tube, he said.

The Marine Corps official said an explosion at the point of firing in a training exercise could kill or maim anyone in or near the protective mortar pit and could concussively detonate any mortars stored nearby in a phenomenon known as "sympathetic detonation."

The official said a worldwide moratorium after such an accident is not unusual and would persist until the investigation determines that the weapon did not malfunction in ways that would hurt other Marines or that mortar shells manufactured at the same time as the one involved in the accident were safe.

The official said it would be normal to warn other U.S. military branches that use 60 mm mortars, such as the Army, about the Marines warning. The moratorium could last for weeks or months.

The investigation will focus on whether the Marines followed procedures to properly fire the weapon, or whether there was a malfunction in the firing device or in the explosive mortar shell itself, the official said.

The Hawthorne Army Depot stores and disposes of ammunition. The facility is made up of hundreds of buildings spread over more than 230 square miles, and bunkers dot the sagebrush-covered hills visible from the highway.

Renown hospital emergency physician Dr. Michael Morkin, at a news conference late Tuesday afternoon, said some of the injured Marines he treated were conscious and "knew something happened but didn't know what."

He said he's "fairly confident" that one of the most seriously injured Marines wouldn't have survived had it not been for the response of a Careflight medical helicopter to the remote site near Hawthorne, 140 miles southeast of Reno.

Morkin said the Marines mostly suffered blunt force trauma from shrapnel.

"They're injuries of varying severity ... to varying parts of the body. They're complicated injuries to deal with," he said.

Retired Nevada state archivist Guy Rocha said the facility opened in 1930, four years after a lightning-sparked explosion virtually destroyed the Lake Denmark Naval Ammunition depot in northern New Jersey, about 40 miles west of New York City.

The blast and fires that raged for days heavily damaged the adjacent Picatinny Army Arsenal and surrounding communities, killing 21 people and seriously injuring more than 50 others.

Hawthorne has held an important place in American military history since World War II when it became the staging area for ammunition, bombs and rockets for the war. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection says that the depot employed more than 5,500 people at its peak.

The facility was considered safely remote, but strategically close to Navy bases in California.

Rocha said he was unaware of any other catastrophic event at the depot over the years it served as a munitions repository. The facility has downsized in recent years but survived a round of base closures nationwide in 2005.

Military officials noted that it gave Marines, Army and Navy personnel a place to train for deployment overseas.

"They train at a similar climate, elevation and terrain as Afghanistan," said Rocha, who has visited the depot many times over the years.

In the small town that calls itself "America's Patriotic Home" near the depot, a massive flag in a park across from the local war memorial waved at half-staff.

Larry Mortensen, an industrial engineer at the depot for 41 years before retiring in 1999, serves with his wife, Carole, on the board of directors of the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum. The museum displays hundreds of shells and other munitions, battery guns and weapons dating to World War II.

Mortensen said there had been fatal accidents at the depot in years past, but none resulting in mass casualties. He said he expected the rural town of about 3,500 residents to rally around victims' families.

"It's a military community. Everybody here supports the military," he said.

 

Comments

Pete

"On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used the deaths of seven U.S. Marines at an ammunition depot in Hawthorne, Nevada to politicize the sequester cuts. But NBC military correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said that the Marines Corps is not happy with Reid and accused him of "political posturing," The Blaze reported."

This is low. Even for Prince Harry.

2cents

It is sad to see what goes on today, our founders would not be happy with the party situation. They fight, bicker, get us in a boat load of debt, want to give away the ship to lazy people, fly all over the country playing golf and "we the people" have to pay for them making a mess of the United States!

Licorice Schtick

It's a story about seven dead soldiers and the first comment is a partisan attack. THAT'S Sad.

Pete

Yes it is sad that the first comments by Harry Reid was a partisan attack.

It is disgusting actually. But then again the left lacks basic morals, so while disgusting, it is not surprising.

Cunning Linguist

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.
-Tomas Young

Pete

Nice Copy & Paste. Plus a bonus point for trying deflection. Seems to me W. and Cheney have nothing to do with Prince Harry & this story though.

Cunning Linguist

You brought up the left and morals so I thought I'd share. The left is just as immoral as the right, it's just a different flavor of Kool-aid.

Darwin's choice

Time for that old goat to leave.....

kURTje

So many chickenhawks.