CAPT. JAMES ELIEFF
Oregon National Guard
It was a drill weekend and we were heading to the range for hand grenade training. I had just assumed command of my company and was eager to gauge my unit’s range safety program. My predecessor couldn’t execute a thorough handoff with me before I took over; therefore, I had a lot to learn about my new Soldiers.
I knew my company’s experience level with hand grenades was limited, so I was looking forward to observing the range operations standard operating procedures that were in place. Our main training event was to qualify with hand grenades, culminating with a live hand grenade range. Ninety days prior to the training event, the officers in charge for the qualification and live ranges briefed me on range operations. The range’s OIC, range safety officer, NCOIC and range safeties had completed the range safety certification process necessary to execute the training.
For the qualification range, I was briefed that every other lane would be used for safety separation and to maintain accountability of the throwers’ grenades. The operational flow would be dictated by the tower’s guidance to the throwers for all lanes. Overall, every thrower would act in unison and execute in the following sequence. Throwers would move to the throwing line and assume the throwing tables’ required pre-position. Then they would be directed to secure one practice hand grenade in their throwing hand while covering that hand with the opposite hand. The tower would then instruct the throwers to execute the throw as the range safeties monitored them for spot corrections and safety halts as needed. Once all the throwers had executed their lanes, they would be directed to move down their lane to recover their M69 practice grenade. I was also briefed that the tower would provide an “all clear” from the lane safeties, indicating all grenades had expended their M228 detonating fuzes before anyone was allowed downrange. Everything was briefed by the books, and I felt comfortable with the preparation for the training.
As the drill weekend unfolded, I headed to the range with my first sergeant and executive officer to observe training. As I walked onto the range, which was setup like an M-16 zeroing range, I saw Soldiers walking down the lanes as other Soldiers were throwing M69 practice grenades! This wasn’t how the training was supposed to be conducted and deviated from what I was briefed beforehand.
From my time as a private in one unit station training to my current rank of captain, every range safety brief included the reminder, “Everyone is a safety.” I immediately called for a cease fire. The RSO and OIC scrambled to my location and asked what was going on.
Here’s an interesting fact about M69 practice hand grenades: they’re armed with an M228 detonating fuze for more realistic training. The fuze creates 970 to 16,500 psi, according to an Army controlled explosives test. Comparatively, an average private motor vehicle tire holds about 35-40 psi, which, if inflated improperly, could hurt someone.
I explained the explosive characteristics of the M228 fuze, and they refuted my explanation. They tried to explain the safety control measures they had in place: one lane separation to mitigate blast hazards and safeties assigned to two lanes (instead of one as briefed) for positive fuze expenditures before entering the lane. They attempted to justify the change of range operations to speed up the completion of the range.
The broad psi range of the fuze wasn’t controlled by three feet of distance. When I spoke with Soldiers, they said they could feel the fuzes going off when they were downrange. Lane encroachment by grenades rolling into other lanes was a hazard that could have taken off a Soldier’s finger. One safety assigned to observe two lanes with six thrown grenades, at uncontrolled windows of execution, made the observation of the fuze expenditures hazardous. It was important that the RSO and OIC understood that the fuzes were like firecrackers, which can cause serious injuries. In addition to expediting the training, the RSO and OIC explained, “That’s how we’ve run the range in the past.”
Complacency in the unit’s range safety program was identified during this weekend. I asked why the range operations deviated from the range brief I received and, again, I was told that’s how it’s always been. The RSO and OIC also explained that they had been in their positions for this range since they arrived to the unit.
Complacency is one of the most dangerous hazards to a range safety program. It’s important to rotate personnel in their duties as well as having a leadership presence on ranges during operations. Rotating personnel allows for a larger knowledge pool of range safeties and provides fresh eyes to operations. Placing as many different sets of eyes on range operations greatly increases the likelihood of identifying hazards and, more importantly, mitigating those hazards.
Two positives came out of this drill. First, and most importantly, no Soldiers were injured. Second, all unit Soldiers understood and saw the command’s emphasis on safety without being immediately disciplined. Asking questions and understanding how Soldiers operate and think can assist leaders in tailoring safety programs to their unit. Being seen and participating as leaders can positively impact unit range safety.