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More than a Good Idea

More than a Good Idea
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 MICHAEL R. HEDGPETH
D Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Aviation Regiment
Fort Rucker, Ala.


It seems like Soldiers are mandated to attend thousands of safety briefings a year. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t go out without a plan. Wear your personal protective equipment. Don’t speed. Each briefing resembles the last, and before one even begins, the elevator music starts playing in my head.

The task of keeping our troops safe is daunting. And the task of passing concern and ownership of safety from safety officers to Soldiers (a group that engages in relatively unsafe behavior as an occupation) is almost impossible. I believe what we need is something that makes safety real.

Soldiers believe we are immune to “Murphy.” Those ankle biters that catch up with the average Joe don’t apply to us because we are better than that. Helmets are for people who crash, not us. Super-fantastic safety yellow is a fashion statement for a third-grade teacher, not a borderline superhuman. In reality, we lose more Soldiers due to oversights in our own safety than to enemy gunfire. Although many of us know that to be true, it still doesn’t change our perceptions about personal safety.

If the “I-won’t-get-hurt-because-I-won’t-allow-it-to-happen” mentality sounds familiar, keep reading. I was that type of person. It took an event out of my control to change my mind. I hope after reading this that you, too, will be persuaded to consider doing some of the little things that can make a big difference in your safety.

It was July 1, 2004, and I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed private on my first deployment. Back then, I was a 15T (Black Hawk mechanic) assigned to C/10 AVN. We had entered Iraq in the latter parts of 2003, and after moving between Anaconda, Tikrit and Mosul, my part of the task force settled in at Q-West. I was qualified on more weapons than I knew the Army even had. Depending on the day, I could be doing scheduled maintenance on an aircraft or pulling security on a convoy running supplies up and down Main Supply Route 1.

All in all, I enjoyed getting outside the wire. The sights and sounds I saw while traveling around Iraq aren’t something one sees on a normal day in the U.S. Then, on a seemingly ordinary day, I learned that safety is more than a good idea.

We were running resupplies to a small retrans site between Mosul and Q-West, just off of MSR 1. I was on the back of a two-seat up-armored HMMWV. This wasn’t one of the fancy enclosed two-seaters, but the kind where the back was open to the world. In the back of the HMMWV, my unit had welded a mount for an M249 with a small shield of steel on the front and a ratchet strap that would retain the poor soul (me) clinging to the SAW from being thrown from the vehicle.

Up to this point, the trip had been uneventful. My vehicle, which was fourth in line, was to stop at the point where the convoy departed the road and pull security with two other vehicles until the resupply mission was complete. As we left the road to turn around, our HMMWV followed the tire tracks of the vehicles ahead of us, which was the TTP at the time. Unfortunately, that would work against us on this day.

Under the sand, insurgents had stacked four anti-tank mines on top of one another, waiting for something to set off their pressure triggers. Two HMWWVs, a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle and my truck’s front-right tire all made it over the mines. Then BOOM!

You know in the movies how Tom Cruise or some other action star sees the explosion coming and has time to run to the edge of a bridge or roof and jump to safety? Well, I can tell you with certainty that it’s not like that in real life. Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of being involved in an explosion knows that it happens so much faster than your brain can process. Even though time really does seem to slow down, it still doesn’t allow for the cognitive process to take place and manifest into a physical reaction.

My HMMWV was lifted from the ground, turned almost 180 degrees and then brutally slammed back to earth. Miraculously, I was able to hang on to the SAW for my first “flight” in an Army vehicle. But as we reconnected with the ground, I was flung out the side of the truck, showing the inadequacy of the ratchet straps that were supposed to keep me in place. The chain retaining the chock blocks to the HMWWV wrapped around my leg and partially stopped my exit, leaving me hanging upside down off the side of the vehicle, my head dangling just above the sand. I remember my face feeling extremely wet and having the overwhelming need to spit. That is when I began to process what had just happened.

When I did spit, a mixture of blood and sand spewed from my mouth. I knew shrapnel had torn my face to shreds, leaving my lips looking much like the alien’s mouth in the movie “Predator.” As cliché as it sounds, as soon as I realized I still had all my fingers, my mind immediately turned to whether or not “I” was intact. Fortunately, I was still whole (believe me, you would check too). So there I was, hanging upside down with 50 pounds of gear on my back, waiting for the enemy to finish me off. Thankfully, the next person I saw was a battle buddy from the truck behind, who helped me down.

As the adrenaline wore off, my face pounded with every heart beat. I repeatedly asked my friend how bad it was, but he wouldn’t tell me. My tenacity finally won out, though, and he began to describe the damage. To make a long story short, he said my face had basically been blown off. Given the extent of my injuries, I was surprised I could still see him so well. But there he was, clear as day, standing in front of me. How was I not blind? Well, the answer was simple. I had been wearing ballistic sunglasses.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t wear those sunglasses that day because of their ballistic protection properties. I wore them because it was bright outside. I just figured if I was going to wear sunglasses anyway, it might as well be a pair that were also ballistic resistant. They never found those sunglasses. They were disintegrated by the shrapnel — but only after serving the purpose for which they’d been designed.

After my surgeries in Mosul, I was flown to Germany and then back to the U.S. I had a two-by-four-inch hole in my arm, and the doctors were worried about infection. I asked them all if I could still apply for flight school. They told me I could, but I don’t think any of them actually believed it. Understandably, none of them wanted to crush my dreams. Had I not been wearing those ballistic glasses, their doubts might have proved true. Fortunately, with time and a lot of hard work, I was able to classify for my Class I flight physical without waivers. I applied for and was accepted to Warrant Officer Candidate School with flight school to follow.

Looking back after nearly a decade, the decision I made that day not only saved my life, but also my future in the Army. The joy I have flying and the honor I have in serving my country would have taken a drastically different path had I not worn my PPE. But while things eventually worked out for me, this story will never have a truly happy ending. My truck commander took the majority of the impact that day and was killed, saving both me and my driver’s life in the process. One reason I decided to write this article was to honor him. I hope his sacrifice will live on in other Soldiers’ making good decisions. Remember, PPE saves lives — but only if you wear it.

  • 1 April 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 13123
  • Comments: 0
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