ERIC A. WASHINGTON
U.S. Army Europe Safety Office
Every Friday, our company commander would bring us together for his standard safety briefing. He gave the same boring speech week after week. In fact, I’d heard it so many times that I could say the words before he spoke. And this was just the beginning of what seemed to be a continuous echo.
After the company commander was finished, the first sergeant stood in front of us and basically gave the same message. My platoon sergeant would then follow by saying the same thing — though he would put his spin on it by telling us a war story about a previous accident. He’d finish with, “If I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt, I wouldn’t be here telling this story today.” But that, too, was repeated every week, as if none of us were present at the previous safety brief. The entire process took about 45 minutes to complete. I remember thinking those safety briefs were a huge waste of time. Then one week the brief was a little different.
Our unit was conducting a training exercise at East Range, the Army’s primary training spot at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Our commander called for an informal formation while we were eating dinner and reprimanded us for not wearing our Kevlar helmets in military vehicles. He said he was concerned because he didn’t seem to be reaching us with his safety messages.
Some Soldiers replied that the helmets hurt their heads. At that point, we’d been wearing them for four days. They also complained that the helmets were always falling down over their eyes, obstructing their vision.
Undeterred by this testimony, the commander reinforced his previous position and promised to punish anyone caught without their Kevlar. I was really confused because, at that time, our company had a pretty good safety record. We hadn’t experienced any major accidents or injuries during the entire year I was there. Due to the commander’s warning, though, no one was caught without their Kevlar during the last week of that field problem.
Our next training exercise was a few months later. We’d been in the field for about two weeks, and everyone was looking forward to returning back to the garrison environment. Even though we still had a week to go, you could feel the complacency creeping in. Everyone seemed to have a careless attitude.
The company set up a racetrack formation and made evenly spaced laps around it for a night smoke mission. It was a routine mission we’d practiced numerous times during this and previous field exercises. About an hour into the mission, I saw a smoke vehicle veer off the track and head aimlessly across a field, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.
After we finished the mission, we headed back to our camp. The relaxation and rest didn’t last long, however. Later that night, we learned a Soldier in our platoon had died in that runaway vehicle. A subsequent accident investigation revealed he’d struck his head on the smoke control panel, causing the fatal injury. Stunned, we were briefed that if he’d worn his Kevlar, it would have saved his life.
I don’t know why it took such a tragedy to confirm what our superiors had been telling us about wearing our Kevlar and seat belts. That accident changed the unit’s whole attitude. Our sergeant’s old war stories were now our reality. We finally got it, but we learned our lesson the hard way.
Too many of our Soldiers have died in rollover accidents in theater. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if they’d only worn their seat belt or helmet. Pay attention when your commander and other leaders give their safety brief. Years down the road, wouldn’t you rather be that platoon sergeant telling your war stories than a dead Soldier who didn’t listen.