Questions Remain for Families of Marines After New Report Into Fatal Midair Collision

U.S. Navy Lt. Andrew Forester speaks to service members and their families during a candlelight vigil aboard Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Dec. 6th, 2019.
U.S. Navy Lt. Andrew Forester, a chaplain with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152, speaks to service members and their families during a candlelight vigil aboard Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Dec. 6th, 2019. The candlelight vigil was held in honor of the Marines who perished in a mishap off Kochi, Japan in 2018. They honored Lt. Col. Kevin R. Herrmann, 38, Maj. James M. Brophy, 36 Staff Sgt. Maximo A. Flores, 27, Cpl. Daniel E. Baker, 21, and Cpl. William C. Ross, 21 with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, and Capt. Jahmar F. Resilard with Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242. (Tyler Harmon/U.S. Marine Corps)

When Joni Resilard got word that a team of military officials would be briefing her on the results of a new probe into the aircraft collision that killed her son and five other Marines off the coast of Japan in 2018, she steeled herself for more heartache.

Resilard, like the other families who lost loved ones in the early morning mishap over the Pacific, has been haunted by the details of her son's death. She takes medication for post-traumatic stress, plagued by thoughts of the roughly 10 hours Capt. Jahmar Resilard spent alone in the 68-degree water after he and his weapons officer ejected from their aircraft when it slammed into another plane.

She even turned down her shower to its lowest setting recently, she said, to try picturing what her son might have felt in those final hours before his heart stopped.

What hurt Joni Resilard "to her core" though, she said, was the way the Marine Corps described her son, an F/A-18D Hornet pilot with Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242, in its first investigation into the fatal collision. Capt. Resilard, who flew his jet into a KC-130J tanker carrying five Marines after becoming disoriented by nonstandard flight patterns and external light settings, was initially found to be unqualified to fly the nighttime refueling mission.

A new team of experts recently released findings showing the Marine Corps got several things wrong in that first investigation, including claims that Capt. Resilard wasn't qualified. The team included a dozen Marines with more than 250 combined years of service, 33 combat deployments and 22,300 flight hours. They spent months looking at the conditions that set the stage for the accident.

"I always say I'm the voice of Jahmar, and it has been an ongoing fight for me to get his name cleared," Joni Resilard said. "I said from Day 1 that that first report was very biased -- a rush job -- and they wanted to sweep it under the carpet. Lo and behold, that did come to fruition."

But even as Marines briefed Joni Resilard and other Gold Star families on the new findings late last month, many questions remain, she and other family members told

The Marine Corps has now held two senior officers to account for a series of warning signs leading up to the accident, in addition to those whose firings were announced publicly after the collision. But the new reprimands were administrative in nature, and shrouded in secrecy since they're protected by the Privacy Act.

That's not the transparency the families of the fallen were promised, said retired Marine Col. Kevin Herrmann, whose son Kevin, a lieutenant colonel, was one of the five killed inside the C-130. That plane, which went by call sign Sumo 41, was assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152.

"The Sumo 41 families were greatly disappointed with the numerous redactions in the report and the secrecy of the administrative actions; considering our combined loss, we feel as though we have a right to know that information in order to move forward," Herrmann said.

'More Questions Than Answers'

The three Gold Star families who spoke about the Marine Corps' new report on the 2018 collision all credit service leaders for taking steps to prevent similar tragedies.

Herrmann, who spent his career in the Marine Corps as an aviator, serving as a flight instructor and squadron commanding officer, called the report "a watershed moment for Marine aviation." He commended the commandant, Gen. David Berger, for taking the unusual step of directing a broader review into the first investigation.

The new review board made 42 recommendations to address 17 institutional and five organizational problems. Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas, the service's No. 2 general, directed the service to take 11 actions to address the shortfalls.

"That's a pretty big black eye for Marine Corps aviation," Herrmann said. "My wife and I feel that, if the 42 recommendations are put into action, thus making Marine Corps aviation safer, our son and his crew will not have died in vain."

The report's recommendations include changes to first-term pilots' assignments, a sleep study for naval aviators, improvements to how the service shares mishap safety info, and improvements to aircraft readiness so pilots get enough flight hours.

Still, the family members say they're troubled by the hefty redactions in the new report, and the administrative reprimands made against Maj. Gen. Thomas Weidley, the former head of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, and Col. Mark Palmer, former commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 12.

Todd Ross, the father of 21-year-old Cpl. William "Carter" Ross, who also died in the C-130, said it's impossible to know if those punishments went far enough.

"We don't know what they are," Todd Ross told, adding that "the heavy redacting of the report at this stage of the game makes us question the findings. We need clarification of the 'administrative action' that has taken place. There are more questions than answers in this report."

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Alberto Ruiz honors the fallen during the unveiling of a memorial for the five Marines of Sumo-41.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Alberto Ruiz honors the fallen during the unveiling of a memorial for the five Marines of Sumo-41, who perished Dec. 6, 2018, at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Dec. 6th, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler Harmon)

Capt. Joseph Butterfield, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, said the Corps is bound by law to protect personal information for all its service members.

"The Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act governs what information is exempt from release," Butterfield said. "All redactions in the report were done in accordance with both. The Marine Corps has, and will continue to, make individuals available to answer questions from the families involved."

Herrmann said the families just want clarity. He noted that when the former head of Marine Corps aviation, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, testified before Congress in February, he said the Marine Corps' first priority would be informing the fallen Marines' families on the report's findings and providing transparency.

"If you redact a lot of the report, the transparency really isn't there," Herrmann said.

Butterfield said the families were the first to be filled in on the new findings and would remain a priority.

"We have received additional questions from the families following the briefings, and will continue to work with them to provide answers in accordance with policy and law," he said.

Improving Safety Protocols

Joni Resilard, Kevin Herrmann and Todd Ross all remain troubled by the findings in the report that indicate training, flight hours, the pre-flight briefing and other protocols weren't where they should've been leading up to the accident.

Even if someone is qualified to fly, Todd Ross -- a Navy and Army National Guard veteran who now flies civilian planes -- said superiors must take steps to ensure their pilots are proficient. Joni Resilard agrees, and said her son complained about his lack of training -- even in the week leading up to the accident.

The two also cited concerns over the 10-minute briefing the air crews got before the exercise, in which last-minute changes were made that weren't approved up the chain. Todd Ross, who has instructed other pilots, said there was no time for Capt. Resilard and others to take in the changes. Resilard's mother agrees.

"It still tears me up," Joni Resilard said. "If these things were done the right way, all six of them would still be alive."

At the time of the accident, the Marine Corps was struggling to dig out of a troubling aviation readiness problem after years of flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aircraft maintenance woes left fewer planes for aviators to fly, and many squadrons -- including Capt. Resilard's -- fell short of readiness targets.

The report cited "a blind zone" at a higher command level when it came to the squadron's readiness challenges.

"Accepting low readiness from VMFA(AW)-242 had become common practice for many years," it stated, adding that 1st MAW made no effort to mitigate the risk in having the squadron participating in the nighttime refueling exercise.

None of the problems can be pinned on a single act or person, Todd Ross said.

"This was a group effort," he added, noting several concerns about what took place in the air that night and the conditions leading up to the flight.

He and Herrmann, both experienced pilots, are also troubled by the revelation that the other Hornet pilot and Capt. Resilard's weapon systems officer were found to have made false statements to the original investigating officer regarding the use of the sleep aid Ambien. Appropriate administrative actions were taken against both, Butterfield said, but the details and severity of those actions aren't releasable.

In a letter detailing the changes the Marine Corps will make to aviation safety, Thomas, the assistant commandant, wrote that the service must do everything possible to prevent a similar mishap from occurring.

"Training often comes with inherent risks that must be recognized and mitigated," Thomas added. "Though we cannot eliminate all risk, it must be mitigated to an acceptable level to ensure mission continuation."

All the families said they will be looking to the Marine Corps to act on the recommendations in the report that will help improve safety. And at least some of them say the new report brought a sense of closure.

"I read over the 42 issues that they're going to fix," Herrmann said. "I think those are the things we certainly need to fix, and down the road I think we're going to reduce the mishaps and reduce families having to go through what we did in the last 19 or so months.

"But my wife and I, our family, we're going to move forward," he added. "We certainly would like to fight for transparency for the administrative actions, but we're going to move forward."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: General, Colonel Rebuked After Marine Corps Finds Serious Flaws in Fatal Crash Investigation

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