U.S. Army Alaska Safety Office
Fort Richardson, Alaska
Have you ever deliberately put yourself in a situation you didn’t think you’d get out of alive, only to survive and vow never to do the same thing again? If so, you’re not alone. I’m lucky I’m alive and well after all the stupid stuff I’ve done. Playing football on a semi-thawed lake, passing traffic uphill in a no-passing zone and boating in a lightning storm — none of these are sound decisions, but I’ve done them all. When you’re young, it’s hard to distinguish risk from what we perceive as adventure.
Fortunately, most of us learn from our mistakes and live long, productive lives. I, however, didn’t grow out of my irresponsible behavior until well into my Army career. There’s one particular act of stupidity I remember well that should’ve left me dead or at least grievously injured. I’ll start my story by saying it’s never cold enough to risk getting blown to bits starting a stove.
Our artillery battery was conducting a field training exercise one January at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. We’d been in the field about a week and everyone was numb from the cold and rain. We erected a warming tent for the unit to move through, and we’d assembled an old potbelly stove to warm it. There was one problem, though: the stove was missing the inner components that allowed it to burn diesel fuel.
Undeterred, we gathered some wood from outside and crammed it into the stove, but the wet timber wouldn’t ignite. I took it upon myself to find something, anything that would light the wood. What better place to look than the gun line? This line of thinking took me to the point where stupidity overrode common sense.
At the gun line, I found a powder pit and grabbed the most volatile propellant there — a charge 7. The charge 7 is a semi-fixed ammunition propellant containing seven separate charges connected by a thin acrylic cord. When ignited collectively, the charges can hurl a 33-pound projectile about 11,000 meters.
When I got back to the tent, I threw the propellant into the stove, closed the lid and vented the bottom wide enough to accommodate a lighted match. Before “blastoff,” everyone but I evacuated the tent. I was holding the matches. I heard somebody say, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” By then I didn’t care if anybody got warm or not. I simply wanted to see what would happen.
I found out a few seconds later. The stove and flames leapt into the night as the charge exploded. The intense heat from the blast melted the tent lining, and I lay smoldering on the ground. My buddies were laughing hysterically and, although somewhat stunned and shaken, I joined them. Somehow, I was alive!
Since then I’ve often asked myself, “What the hell was I thinking?” I’d been in the Army for more than 10 years. I was supposed to set a good example for the young Soldiers in our unit, but I nearly wound up being a warning poster instead. Additionally, I performed every act that night in front of my chain of command. While they didn’t give me verbal permission to use the charge in the stove, they didn’t stop me either. I interpreted their silence as consent. They were the first ones to leave the tent before I went into action, and nobody ever held me accountable for the damage to the tent and stove.
Today’s Army places much more emphasis on safety than the Army I retired from several years ago. Our Soldiers face the lethality of combat under the privileged tradition of duty, honor and country, consciously going into battle knowing they might make the ultimate sacrifice. But it doesn’t have to be that way in training and everyday activities. We can step back and make smart decisions, which is the beauty of risk management. Even in combat, Soldiers of all ranks have the authority to stop unsafe acts and implement controls to ensure everyone makes it home from the fight. Please take advantage of this great tool and apply it to everything you do, especially if you see some idiot pulling charges out of a powder pit!