CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 MICHAEL RUTLEDGE
4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Weapons are designed to disable designated enemy personnel and, in the hands of properly trained Soldiers, accomplish this task exceptionally well. We must remember, however, a weapon is the instrument of its operator. It will dutifully shoot in the direction the operator points it. Therein lies the problem of negligent discharges, which are always unacceptable and tragic when a Soldier is injured or killed.
Soldiers in sustained combat operations must handle their weapons frequently. Before deployment, they must undergo repetitive, intensive training at home to prepare for the increased weapons exposure in theater. Manipulating both personal and vehicle-mounted weapon systems is pretty routine for most Soldiers, regardless their occupational specialty.
Perhaps what’s most heartbreaking about negligent discharge incidents is, almost without fail, they are all preventable. Weapons safety is taught and emphasized on a daily basis from the beginning of a Soldier’s career. How, then, are these negligent discharges occurring? One possibility is weapons handling has become an everyday occurrence for most Soldiers.
Another possibility for these incidents is some first-level leaders have become complacent in the repetitive nature of training their troops on weapons handling procedures. It’s incumbent on leaders at every level to ensure the basics of correct weapons handling are taught and enforced throughout their formations. Noncommissioned officers have an even greater responsibility since they’re usually present during critical phases of weapons operations such as loading and clearing.
Several safety procedures and mechanisms exist to prevent negligent discharges. One that’s often overlooked, however, is also almost 100 percent effective — basic muzzle awareness! If a Soldier should bypass every other procedural and mechanical safety measure other than making sure his weapon is always pointed in a safe direction, it’s unlikely anyone will get hurt if the weapon fires. Of course, simply being careful about muzzle direction doesn’t give a Soldier permission to skip the other steps of proper weapons handling. Leaders must also constantly reinforce muzzle awareness to the point it becomes habit for their Soldiers.
Likewise, Soldiers must get in the mindset that any weapon, whether it’s firmly locked in an armory, has its magazine out, is lying with its chamber open on a bunk or is being carried on a combat patrol, is capable of killing them. Soldiers must be trained to be skeptical no matter how benign a weapon looks. A weapon is a killing machine that’s waiting for an opportunity to do so.
These principles apply to those working around weapons as well. Bystanders losing situational awareness or taking proper handling procedures for granted could unexpectedly find themselves on the wrong end of a weapon. By remaining cognizant of their surroundings, other personnel will allow Soldiers to avoid potentially dangerous situations and also provide the opportunity for corrective training.
Current training and deployment requirements dictate Soldiers develop and maintain weapons proficiency. The law of averages indicates that as realistic training and combat deployments continue, so, too, will the relative occurrence of negligent discharges. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to prevent all negligent discharges, but proper training and reinforcement can limit the damage and injury they cause.
To combat negligent discharges, leaders must change the way Soldiers think about and handle weapons. Both leaders and Soldiers have a responsibility to set the example for others and make on-the-spot corrections. Drill home that your Soldiers must THINK
reat every weapon as if it’s loaded.
andle every weapon with care.
dentify the target before you fire.
ever point the muzzle at anything you don’t intend to shoot.
eep the weapon on SAFE and your finger off the trigger until you intend to fire.