(WBEN/AP) The training accident that killed seven Marines in Nevada last week claimed the life of a native Western New Yorker.
Lance Corporal Mason Vanderwork hailed from Jamestown, and his father still lives there. He joined the Marine Corps in June 2010 and was promoted to his current rank in August 2011. Vanderwork's awards include the National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, and NATO Medal-ISAF Afghanistan. He was most recently deployed in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in 2011.
Vanderwork loved going to the beach and cruising in his Mustang convertible. He and his wife, Taylor, married the day after she graduated high school and hoped to start a family.
The 21-year-old loved being a Marine and had a tattoo emblazoned on his chest, she said, that read, "Sacrifice. Without fear there is no courage."
He was one of seven killed in an explosion at the Hawthorne Army Depot Monday evening. Six remained hospitalized in Reno on Thursday, and their overall conditions were improving. Five were listed in fair condition, and one was in serious, compared with two who had been serious a day earlier.
The explosion occurred at a facility used by troops heading overseas, during an exercise involving the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Several Marines from the unit were injured in the blast, authorities said.
The official said it was not immediately clear whether the 60mm mortar shell exploded prematurely inside its firing tube or whether more than a single round exploded. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak about an ongoing investigation.
The 60mm 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 Marine Corps official said an explosion at the point of firing in a training exercise could kill or maim anyone inside or nearby the protective mortar pit and could concussively detonate any mortars stored nearby in a phenomenon known as "sympathetic detonation."
The investigation will focus on whether the Marines followed procedures to properly fire the weapon, whether there was a malfunction in the firing device or in the explosive mortar itself, the official said.
The explosion Monday caused an immediate suspension of the use of 60 mm mortars by the Marine Corps, with an exemption for troops in Afghanistan, U.S. military and Marine officials said. Marine units on the warfront may continue to use the mortars with the review and approval of their commanders. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said they have not stopped using the mortars there.
The suspension, which will be in effect until the accident investigation is complete, largely affects units that are training, although those Marines could use the larger and more powerful 81 mm mortar systems if needed.
At Camp Lejeune, an 170-square-mile base and home to about 50,000 uniformed troops, counselors at the Naval Hospital were gearing up to offer help as the ripples from Monday's tragedy began reaching family and friends, barracks mates and survivors, said Dr. Sawsan Ghurani, director of mental health programs at the hospital.
"It's so unexpected that it's more of a shock than if you'd been mentally prepared" for battlefield casualties, said Ghurani, a psychiatrist and Navy captain. "You hope people don't die in war, but it is a common occurrence and whereas, in training exercises, it's very rare."
The ages of the victims make it even worse, Ghurani said.
"For me, it's especially tragic when they are so young and still have so much left to give in life and to experience in life that it just seems unfair," she said. But, she added, "The nature of the military culture is to be selfless."