CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 KENT SHEPHERD
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
In the spring of 1998, I was a 63T Bradley Fighting Vehicle mechanic who had just been promoted to the rank of specialist. We were approaching the end of a two-week training exercise when the transmission in our medic vehicle, an M113A3, began to malfunction. My command decided to send the vehicle back to our battalion motor pool at Camp Casey, Korea, due to the complexity of replacing the transmission.
Upon arrival back at our maintenance facility, I worked overnight with another mechanic to complete the job. The sun was beginning to rise as we finalized the repairs and lowered the power pack into the M113A3. We were exhausted from two weeks of training and then being awake all night. Now that the job was completed, our final step was to take the vehicle for a road test.
I deferred the road test to the other mechanic and grabbed all of the paperwork to have my clerk change the transmission serial number in the computer. As soon as the paperwork issue was settled, I walked outside and was immediately met by the other mechanic, who told me the new transmission had issues. This was the last thing I wanted to hear.
I asked the mechanic what was wrong, hoping it was something we failed to connect and could rectify quickly. He replied, “I drove it around and the track will turn right, but it will not turn left.” He then asked if I would drive the vehicle to see if I could get the transmission working. I confidently replied, “No problem.” I walked over to the M113A3 to check the linkages to see if we had made a mistake. Satisfied everything was connected properly, I climbed inside to take it for a spin around the motor pool.
Once inside the M113A3 driver’s hatch, I quickly looked back at the hatch cover and realized the safety pin wasn’t installed when the other mechanic took it on the test drive. This pin is an important part of the hatch safety mechanism and prevents the hatch from coming loose during operation. I was thankful I caught this mistake and quickly slid the pin into the latch and started the test drive.
As I pulled forward, I realized my buddy was correct and the track would not steer left at all. I tried everything possible to move the controls, hoping the hydraulics inside the transmission would start to work and allow the vehicle to steer properly. Frustrated, I accelerated to about 15 mph and firmly pressed the brakes to see if that would help. I suddenly felt the impact when the hatch cover came loose and smashed me in the back of the head, slamming me forward. Fortunately, my combat vehicle crewman helmet absorbed the impact to the back of my head; but the front of my face was completely unprotected and took the full brunt of the blow.
I felt my teeth flying out of my mouth and down my throat. Shocked and dazed, I started to climb out of the driver’s hatch while the vehicle was still in motion. Several Soldiers who were standing nearby leaped onto the track, locked the parking brake and lowered me to the ground. I could see by the looks on their faces that my injuries were serious. Even the medic that attended to me grimaced in horror and shouted a flurry of expletives when he saw my severed lower lip hanging below the bottom of my chin and a good portion of my upper teeth broken off into jagged nubs.
The Soldiers were quick to call an ambulance, but it seemed like forever before it arrived. I just laid at the wash rack, bleeding profusely from my mouth — the field dressing wrapped around my head doing little to stop the flow. When the ambulance finally arrived, I was quickly transported to the local hospital to stabilize and prepare me for the medevac flight to a hospital in Seoul, South Korea.
Upon entrance into the emergency room, a team of nurses cut my filthy coveralls off my body and cleaned me for surgery. The surgery lasted several hours since they had to remove all the broken teeth and stitch up my gums, inner lip and outer lip. The end result was a large loss of my upper jaw bone, six upper teeth permanently lost and several hundred stitches both inside and outside my mouth.
Afterward, I was completely confused how the accident happened. From my perspective I had done everything correctly when I put the pin in the hatch locking mechanism. When one of my NCOs came to visit me in the hospital, I learned the other mechanic who drove the M113A3 on the first road test failed to properly secure the hatch into the latch mechanism. So, not only did he forget to install the safety pin, but he also neglected to lock the hatch at all. The cover was just resting in the open position, which allowed it to swing forward when I hit the brakes. Following this event, I spoke with the other mechanic and discovered he was never properly trained how to operate the M113A3 when he received his license. He was just acting in ignorance when he didn’t to secure the hatch correctly.
Since the accident I have had a bone graft to repair my upper jaw, dental implants and several scar revision surgeries to smooth out my chin. I still have very little feeling in my lip, as well as two distinct scars between my lower lip and my chin. Fortunately, doctors were able to put me back together and I have a story to tell.
In retrospect, this accident could have been avoided if I had just grabbed the hatch to make sure it was secure in the latch. But it also could have been prevented if the other mechanic did the same thing when he conducted the first road test. Moreover, this accident may have been prevented if our leadership actually took the time to license us properly. Hands-on training, vehicle-specific testing, PMCS testing and a road test would have likely ensured we truly knew everything we needed to about the safe operation of this vehicle.
If there is one thing I have learned from this incident, it is accidents like this one can be prevented by leaders who take the time to properly train Soldiers on how to safely operate Army vehicles. We have a lot on our training calendars, but quality driver training should never be sacrificed in order to make the mission happen. The last thing a leader wants to do is to explain why a Soldier was injured or killed because they failed to properly train them and neglected to enforce the standard.