The Price of Ignoring Safety
TIMOTHY T. SANK JR.
U.S. Army Public Health Center
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland
It was a brisk morning and we were into our second week of military police field training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. We’d been practicing military operations on urban terrain (MOUT) tactics for several days. Our equipment consisted of all the vehicles and weapons a military police platoon would have. We were having a great time and feeling a little invincible. Our confidence level was high because all of our iterations went off without a hitch. We’d even done some unscheduled rappelling operations. Safety was the last thought on anyone’s mind.
Eventually, the time came for force-on-force exercises, which allowed us to combine all of the skills we’d been practicing. We would be entering into the MOUT site for some squad individual tactics. The opposing force (OPFOR) would consist of no more than three individuals, and our job would be to neutralize any threats. Both sides would have weapons with blank ammunition, smoke grenades and hand grenade simulators.
My squad was up first and performed all of our tactics flawlessly! We eliminated the threats in record time. Everyone was really pumped as second squad readied for its turn.
In an effort to outdo us, second squad decided to change up things a bit. Rather than have their two teams enter the town on foot while their M1025 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) maintained overwatch — as my squad did — the plan called for one of the HMMWVs to drive slowly down the road while the teams moved behind it. The HMMWV would act as concealment from the OPFOR, which, at the time, sounded like a good idea.
The M1025 crew was simple; just a driver and an M240B machine gunner. The vehicle commander was outside with the teams so he could better coordinate the exercise. As the squad entered the town complex, a member of the OPFOR team stepped out from behind a building and skittered a grenade simulator down the road toward the front of the HMMWV. Unfortunately, the inexperienced driver panicked. She threw the vehicle into reverse and stomped on the gas to escape the grenade. The vehicle lurched backward, causing the two teams who were following close behind to scatter.
However, one Soldier did not get out of the way quickly enough. He was knocked to the ground and the vehicle began to run over him. The rear driver-side wheel came up his right leg, causing an open compound fracture of his tibia and fibula. The HMMWV continued to travel up the Soldier’s body, crushing his right hip and pelvis, and then ran across his abdomen and onto his chest, breaking several ribs and puncturing a lung. The vehicle finally came to rest on the left side of his upper chest, breaking his left clavicle.
Everyone was screaming at the poor, confused driver that she had parked on top of a Soldier. Still in a state of panic, she threw the vehicle back into gear and stomped on the gas again, peeling off the Soldier. I, a trained paramedic, and another Soldier, who was a trained emergency medical technician, rushed to the injured Soldier so we could stabilize him until an ambulance arrived. The Soldier was then transported to a local medical center, where he spent several hours in surgery.
The moral of this story is that even something as simple as routine training can be dangerous. We were out there to learn and ended up losing two Soldiers to a training mishap. Neither the injured Soldier nor the driver was ever able to return to duty.
No one had thought about safety that day. We hadn’t given a safety brief, nor had we appointed someone as a safety officer. No one wanted to volunteer to take on the extra responsibility of safety. We also failed to identify all of the hazards, such as having an inexperienced vehicle operator who had not rehearsed the mission. In addition, leaders never talked about potential threats and what the proper responses to those threats would be.
Sadly, the principles of risk management were never used, which lead to a tough lesson learned. It doesn’t matter where or how a loss occurs, the result is the same — decreased combat power or mission effectiveness.