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What Would You Do?

What Would You Do?
4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment
Fort Campbell, Ky.

What do more than 900 combat flight hours, four deployments, over 30 presidential protective details and 22 improvised explosive devices disabled have in common? The answer is none of those experiences gave me the kind of angst as a decision I had to make in the summer of 1998. Sound strange? Read on and I'll explain.

Every unit has an NCO that stands out as a role model. In my unit, Staff Sgt. Smith* was that NCO. He was a great explosive ordnance disposal technician and I respected him a great deal. He had been my instructor in EOD school and I trusted his judgment completely. He was well liked by all and a good friend of mine.

In 1998, Smith and I were on one of those six-month peacetime deployments to Kuwait that we only dream about now. He was my supervisor, which I was happy about because he was experienced and knew what he was doing. Part of our job in Kuwait was to help the local government clean up unexploded ordnance and bulk ammunition left by Saddam’s army during their hasty retreat from that country. We really enjoyed the work, and there was plenty of it to go around for everyone. On one such mission, Smith and I were working together when something happened that I'll never forget.

We’d been working all day to help clear an area around a former Iraqi ammunition holding area that had blown up as a result of the summer heat and poor storage techniques. All types of UXO littered the area. The ammunition that was safe to move was being transported by truck to a disposal location. The UXO that was unsafe to transport was destroyed in place.

It was late in the afternoon and we were all feeling tired. I don't know if it was complacency or just plain exhaustion that caused Smith to think it was OK to pick up an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade and carry it by hand to the disposal point. I was dumbfounded because a slick-badge tech right out of EOD school wouldn't think about doing something like that. It was a clear-cut unsafe act.

My mind raced as I grappled with the responsibility I had just been handed. Do I say something? Do I risk losing his respect and shattering our friendship? What if word gets out and his career is put in jeopardy? Do I want to be responsible for that? This guy was my friend and a heck of a good EOD technician. Do I want to jeopardize that for a onetime event?

The unfortunate thing about failing to speak up when you see an unsafe act is that it is usually rewarded with nothing bad happening. If you don't think so, let me ask this question. What happened the last time you saw someone doing something unsafe and you said nothing? Were they injured or killed? Odds are they weren't. I saw a study that suggested more than 600 near misses occur for every catastrophic accident. That means someone could potentially observe more than 600 unsafe acts without speaking up and never have to suffer the consequences for their lack of moral courage. Sound like a safe bet? Many people prefer to roll the dice instead of make waves. Do you?

What is not obvious from a study like this is the cumulative effect one person can have on how fast his or her unit reaches that magic number of 600. Here’s how it works: Individual A sees an unsafe act and says nothing. Individual B learns by example and passes it on to Individual C, who passes it on to D and so on. If 600 really is the magic number and not just a statistical likelihood, do you think Individual A bears any responsibility what happens when his unit reaches that number?

Fortunately, the reverse can also be true. What if Individual A had done what he knew was right and made that on-the-spot correction? It's possible he could help change the culture of his unit. At the very least, he will sleep better at night. So, what did I do about Smith and the RPG? I did what we all should do — the right thing.

*Author’s note: The name of the EOD technician mentioned in this article has been changed to protect his privacy.

  • 1 June 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 13359
  • Comments: 0