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Attack of the Water Buffaloes

Attack of the Water Buffaloes

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MAJ. JASON SPENCER
Headquarters and Headquarters Company
30th Armored Brigade Combat Team
North Carolina Army National Guard
Clinton, North Carolina


The Profession of Arms can be difficult. At times, it involves missions in the extreme heat while wearing body armor and carrying weapons, ammunition and other gear. The Army’s answer for preventing Soldiers from becoming heat casualties is proper water intake. And for decades, the answer to transporting water to these Soldiers on the front line has been a 400-gallon water trailer — otherwise known as the water buffalo.

Rivaling the dangers of dehydration are the hazards associated with delivering water to the Soldiers safely. During an 18-week training exercise in El Salvador during the spring and summer of 2011, my Maneuver Enhancement Brigade used M149 water buffalo trailers to deliver water to several worksites. Despite being a 14-year veteran with three overseas tours, it took this training mission to teach me the extent of re-supply hazards using water trailers.

As the recently assigned brigade additional duty safety officer, some of my duties included risk analysis, risk mitigation and trend analysis. With thousands of Soldiers rotating over an 18-week period, one can expect some injuries as a matter of course. Ankle sprain while playing sports? Check. A black eye playing basketball? Check. But what surprised me were the injuries associated with M149 trailers. Who knew they were so dangerous? I sure didn’t.

In the first case, we had a lifting injury. While maneuvering the water buffalo, a Soldier strained his back. As I recall, the back strain placed the Soldier on quarters for at least a day. We initially discounted this accident as an isolated case, as the Soldier was in his late 40s and had a history of back injuries. One could conclude that it was simply a case of Soldier overconfidence.

But then came another accident. A sergeant suffered a broken foot when the trailer’s tow ring fell on top of it. Leading up to the incident, the Soldier and his team had attempted to maneuver the water buffalo over uneven ground at a worksite.

And then there was third accident. While trying to switch towing vehicles in the middle of a busy street, a Soldier’s leg fractured under the weight of the trailer. This accident was the last straw. Our colonel immediately ordered a safety stand-down and froze the use of water buffaloes until further notice.

The commander’s inquiry that followed revealed that up-armored HMMWVs, despite having powerful engines, were not high enough off the ground to safely hook and unhook an M149-series water trailer. The technical manual for the water buffalo says the trailer was originally designed for 2.5-ton trucks, which have a rear hitch much higher off the ground than the one on the HMMWV. The difference meant that while mounted on the hitch of a 2.5-ton truck (or equivalent Family of Medium Tactical Vehicle series), Soldiers can fully adjust and lock the big, movable metal leg into place. The leg serves as the third point of contact with the ground and balances the trailer securely.

While mounted on the HMMWV, however, the adjustable arm would often not lock into place; and it required a crew to unhook it and hold it into place while another Soldier adjusted and locked the third leg. It turns out that this was a very risky operation, especially with a 3,000-pound trailer carrying another 3,300 pounds of water when filled to capacity. It was a much higher risk than necessary to accomplish the mission.

My takeaway from this experience was we must know the limitations of our equipment and review the technical manuals associated with prime movers and trailers. The M149 and all similar-height trailers have no business hitched to a HMMWV.

After the safety stand-down we found a way to mitigate the hazards of water resupply while eliminating the need to hook/unhook the trailer. We only used Light Medium Tactical Vehicles to move the trailers. As an additional safety measure, the trailers remained on the back of the LMTV prime movers and returned with the truck at the end of the mission. We took the most dangerous action — hooking and unhooking the water trailer — out of the process. We eliminated the hazard.

As a whole, we were fortunate. Despite some demanding missions and thousands of Soldiers rotating through, we had relatively few injuries. Those injuries that did occur were fairly minor. That said, this entire experience was a humbling reminder that sometimes the last thing you expect to account for your injuries ends up being the biggest casualty producer.

  • 21 May 2017
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 5600
  • Comments: 0
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