CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 LARRY KYLMAN
Company B, 2nd Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment
I was a private first class assigned to a maintenance company at the beginning of the first Gulf War. I worked in the motor pool as a heavy wheeled vehicle mechanic. My company was preparing for movement immediately following the start of the air campaign. The motor pool section was short on drivers, so the motor sergeant asked me about my previous driving experience. It wasn’t much — I had four years’ experience driving a PMV, but I’d once driven an M35A1 2½-ton truck while I was in the Army Reserve. Since we were in combat, that meager experience was enough to satisfy my leadership. I was put in a 5-ton tractor with my squad leader, who was supposed to train me while we convoyed north.
We started our movement shortly after dark, and all was uneventful for the first hour. My squad leader was training me on the “finer points” of driving while towing the tool van. For example, he told me I could greatly reduce my driving workload by pulling the throttle cable and locking it into position at my current speed setting. I tried it and, sure enough, my right foot was free and I could stretch my legs. What he didn’t tell me, however, was that using the throttle cable as a cruise control is extremely dangerous because the cable doesn’t disengage when you hit the brakes. This was the first of many dangerous practices he would teach me.
We had been told in the convoy briefing that we would stop every three hours for a short rest break. The second and third hour came and went, but we never stopped. I’d been drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages, so after the fourth hour, I really needed a break. I told my squad leader this, but he responded that we couldn’t stop or signal the lead vehicle because we were under radio silence. Instead, he instructed me on “how we do things in combat.”
To my amazement, he opened his door and stepped onto the running board. He then climbed onto the right fuel tank and straddled his leg over the protruding spare tire. Next, he crossed between the fifth-wheel deck and cab and climbed down on the left running board. Then he opened my door — remember, I was driving — and grabbed the steering wheel while I slid over into the passenger seat. I couldn’t believe what I’d just witnessed, but nature’s call still had to be answered. He told me to climb up on the fifth-wheel platform, take my long-overdue relief break and, while I was there, get him a soda.
Traveling at 49 mph in a convoy on a narrow desert two-lane highway, I stepped onto the running board and onto the right fuel tank. I then threw my leg over the spare tire. I had my right hand on the handhold by the door and my left hand on the spare tire’s rim. I froze for a moment because my left hand couldn’t touch any part of the truck’s frame. The only thing I could grab hold of to pull my weight around the spare tire was the tire itself, and it was loose and rattling in its carrier.
I finally overcame my fear and pulled myself onto the fifth-wheel deck, where I got some much-needed relief. I then reached into the left-side tool storage compartment and passed the squad leader a soda through the cab window. I got into the truck and we continued on our way. About an hour later, we finally stopped to refuel.
Since I was relatively new to the Army and vehicle operations, I assumed this unsafe behavior exhibited by my squad leader was perfectly normal. After all, we were in combat. It wasn’t until later that I found out how wrong he really was.
My lesson learned from this experience was safety isn’t something we just discard when hostilities start. There’s no such thing as peacetime safety and wartime safety. There is only safety, which is a state of being. The only way to achieve this state is to actively manage risk. How well you do that is directly proportional to how well you mitigate risks. In my case, we didn’t even attempt risk management. In fact, we did the opposite.
My squad leader ignored rules, regulations and policies normally followed during peacetime because he thought doing so was more efficient. I don’t think he was intentionally trying to do things unsafely; his behavior was just the byproduct of taking shortcuts. Don’t get caught in the same trap of ignoring safety in the name of combat efficiency. Use the risk management process wisely so you can make it home to tell your war stories!