In a victory rare to U.S. military aviation, two widows of Marine Corps pilots have won a 16-year fight to lift blame from their husbands' shoulders for a 2000 Osprey crash that killed 19 people, including 15 Marines from San Diego County.
Test pilots Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gruber were at the controls of the MV-22 aircraft when it crashed in the Arizona desert during an exercise.
The revolutionary aircraft -- which travels like an airplane but lands vertically like a helicopter -- was still in the operational evaluation stage. The Marine Corps had a lot of money and time invested in the controversial airframe, which at one point had enemies as high as then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who tried to kill the program in the early 1990s.
Marine officials viewed the Osprey, with its speed and maneuverability, as a game changer for the battlefield -- and eventually the aircraft did prove itself in Afghanistan by moving troops quickly in and out of harm's way.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina congressman who doggedly championed the widows' cause, said the Marine Corps pushed blame on the pilot and co-pilot back in 2000 because it needed the troubled program to continue and succeed.
"It was too easy to let the blame be on those who can't defend themselves, so the plane can't be blamed and the software can't be blamed," Jones said this week.
His efforts -- which included entreaties across several Pentagon administrations and Marine Corps commandants -- finally paid off last month. That's when Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, a retired Marine officer himself, wrote a letter acknowledging that "it's impossible to point to a single 'fatal factor' that caused this crash."
Gruber's widow, Connie, said the letter settles an injustice.
"It's just a burden lifted. Because for all these years, we've had to feel the weight of, not only did they cause their own deaths, but the deaths of 17 other Marines. That was hard to bear," Connie Gruber said from her home in North Carolina.
"They could not rest in peace until this record was set straight."
Brow's widow, Trish, still lives outside Patuxent River, Md., a hub of naval aviation. She said she was treated differently for years by other military families, including people who would hear her name and turn away.
"I can go on base with my head held high," Brow said this week.
The anniversary of the deaths is April 8, and the sting was slightly softened this year.
"It's not quite as painful. There's not quite the injustice," said Brow, whose sons were ages 7 and 8 when their father died. "We still miss him every day."
It's a hard-won reversal, and not an everyday occurrence in the annals of American military aviation.
"I would think it is very rare," said Bob Butcher, the retired Marine major general who is chairman of the Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum foundation in San Diego.
Killed in the crash were 14 young Camp Pendleton Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and one stationed at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
They were Sgt. Jose Alvarez, 28; Pfc. Gabriel C. Clevenger, 21; Pfc. Alfred Corona, 23; Lance Cpl. Jason T. Duke, 28; Lance Cpl. Jesus Gonzalez Sanchez, 27; Lance Cpl. Seth G. Jones, 18; 2nd Lt. Clayton J. Kennedy, 24, platoon commander; Lance Cpl. Jorge A. Morin, 21; Cpl. Adam C. Neely, 22; Pfc. Kenneth O. Paddio, 23; Pfc. George P. Santos, 19; Pfc. Keoki P. Santos, 24; Cpl. Can Soler, 21; Pvt. Adam L. Tatro, 19; and Cpl. Eric J. Martinez, 21.
The two remaining members of the Osprey crew were Cpl. Kelly S. Keith, 22, and Staff Sgt. William B. Nelson, 30.
The Marine Corps referred request for comment on Work's letter to the defense secretary's office.
In a written statement, the Marine headquarters only expressed sadness for the losses.
"This was a tragic event that occurred nearly 16 years ago, and we continue to mourn the loss of our Marines, as we have every day since the event," the release said.
What aggrieved the families was a Marine Corps press release following the official legal investigation into the crash.
The investigation said the cause of the crash was a too-rapid descent while flying at too slow an airspeed, which caused the Osprey to go into "vortex ring state," also known as power settling. With one of its two rotors stalled, the aircraft flipped over and crashed.
The report said a contributing factor was decisions made by the pilots, who had been warned about the descent and flight speed issues with the new aircraft.
But the official press release appeared to lay blame squarely at the pilots' feet. It concluded that, "Unfortunately, the pilots' drive to accomplish that mission appears to have been the fatal factor."
But the Osprey went on to have more trouble. Another crash in December 2000 killed four Marines and grounded the aircraft for a time.
The next month, the MV-22 squadron commander admitted to falsifying V-22 maintenance records while the program was under scrutiny.
And, a May 2001 Blue Ribbon Panel called for cutting back and restructuring the Osprey program after numerous problems with safety, training and reliability. One of the things to be addressed: Creating a warning system for the "vortex ring state" syndrome seen in April 2000.
The program trudged along. A few years later, MV-22 squadrons began to appear on the West and East Coasts, replacing the Vietnam-era CH-46 aircraft.
With his long battle now done, Jones -- the Republican congressman who finally got someone at the Pentagon to listen to his argument -- said he remembers how he started down this road.
It was a 2002 letter from Connie Gruber, the co-pilot's widow, who lives in his district. Jones still has it and read aloud the part that hooked him: "If you are a man of integrity, you must help me clear the name of my husband.