CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 WILLIS B. ALLEN
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 RYAN S. WILCOX
1st Warrant Officer Company
Fort Rucker, Alabama
When we woke the class at 0445 to prepare for a land navigation performance evaluation, the air was already thick and humid. All of the candidates were anxious because their most feared event was finally upon them. One candidate was particularly nervous. He’d failed the performance evaluation on previous attempts, and this would be his last chance before his dream of becoming a warrant officer was over.
The candidate was an older Soldier with more than 20 years of service. He had let his dream slip by for all those years and finally decided to make good on a promise he made to himself. His morning started rough when he was told he could not wear his watch because it had a built-in compass. Keeping track of time is critical on the treacherous course, so, after a brief deliberation, the cadre decided the candidate would be allowed to use his watch, alleviating some of his fears.
The candidates were given a start time and began plotting their points. Because of the course size and terrain, they could only hope to be correct since there would be no time to fix mistakes. As the candidates departed, the cadre took their posts. I distinctly remember watching them disappear into the woods as sweat dripped down my face. I thought to myself, “These candidates better really focus!”
While two cadre roamed the course to ensure the candidates stayed within the training area, I made sure they were drinking water and not showing signs of dehydration. I searched for the older candidate, but never got eyes on him. However, a few of the other candidates said they’d seen him, really focused and counting pace out loud.
When time expired, 11 candidates were still on the course, so the operations cadre sent all onsite cadre to gather them. One by one the candidates returned with long, sad faces of defeat. The dreaded land navigation had once again lived up to its reputation. As more time elapsed, the older candidate had yet to return, so we called range control to advise them of the situation while all cadre went out to search for him. This wasn’t unusual, and I knew the candidate would be found soon. After about an hour, though, I grew fearful that maybe the worst had happened.
Air support was called to search from above. Occasionally, they’d call over the radio, “We have him! We have him!” The cadre would then rush to the location only to find a lost road guard vest. We eventually had to call off the air support due to rain. The outcome was looking more and more grim.
We continued the search with 70 candidates doing double-arm walks through the woods, hoping we were in the right area. We’d been told where the missing candidate was last seen, but, after looking at his plotting points, we decided to search the other side of the course. The rain wasn’t letting up and, at times, we were trudging through waist-deep creeks. Nightfall eventually came and the searches had to be suspended. The next morning, a 150-person party resumed the search, and the missing candidate was found dead.
As a result of this incident, we identified two key risk factors that required immediate action. The questions we faced were:
1. What controls can we implement to ensure we can find lost, injured or incapacitated candidates?
2. How can we personalize the risk assessment process to better capture each individual’s health and aptitude for this event to identify and mitigate all risk?
In response to these questions, we implemented two controls that have made a significant impact toward our ability to safely conduct land navigation training. First, we purchased proven global positioning system tracking devices. The DeLorme inReach two-way satellite communicator is a commercial off-the-shelf tracking system that allows us to monitor all GPS units from a remote computer station. The system also provides candidates with emergency messaging.
For the land navigation event, all candidates are issued a GPS tracking device, and the cadre observing the computer verifies all units are active before they start the course. During the event, communication is enabled from the cadre monitoring the computer to the roving cadre on the course by means of radio. This control has been 100 percent effective. The GPS gives oversight on candidates inadvertently leaving the designated course. It has also helped a candidate relay that he was in distress by sending an emergency message.
The second control implemented was an individual risk assessment designed to assess each candidate’s health, physical condition and aptitude for land navigation. The individual risk assessment places a number value to each of the following considerations: Army Physical Fitness Test score, previous land navigation attempts, prior heat and cold injuries, medications, age, body composition, medical conditions and the date of last land navigation training. Once the individual risk matrix score values have been totaled, an individual risk score is determined. This risk score can be mitigated individually by giving higher-risk candidates radios or having a cadre member follow them. This control has been extremely valuable in determining individual risk.
The loss of a Soldier, no matter the circumstances, is always tragic. This candidate’s death led the 1st Warrant Officer Company to implement the changes mentioned above in hopes of increasing Soldier safety. To date, the combination of GPS tracking devices and the individual risk assessment matrix has been tremendously effective. By constantly reevaluating the risks associated with training, sharing lessons learned and best practices, and implementing decisive controls, we can help better protect our Army’s most valuable resources by ensuring a similar incident never happens again.