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A Tragic Function Check

A Tragic Function Check
1st Army Division West
Fort Hood, Texas

Author’s note: The objective of this story is to stress weapons safety. The negligent discharge incident I discuss happened in my unit, and the circumstances involved contributed to the tragic loss of a Soldier.

In 2008, I participated in Operation Enduring Freedom. Five of my units were concentrated in Regional Command-East and one battalion was located in southern Afghanistan, conducting combat operations near Kandahar. The threat, both inside and outside the wire, required Soldiers to have a magazine of ammunition in their weapon at all times.

The weapons status for M4 carbines and 9 mm pistols was AMBER, which means magazine with ammunition in the weapon, no ammunition chambered and weapon selector lever on safe. (The other weapon statuses are GREEN and RED. Weapon status GREEN means no magazine in the weapon and the weapon selector lever on safe. RED status means a loaded magazine in the weapon, ammunition loaded into the chamber and the weapon selector lever is on safe.)

Back at home station, Soldiers typically don’t walk around with weapons in AMBER or RED status unless they are on a live-fire training range. Even then, restrictions apply when Soldiers can and can’t have a magazine with ammunition in their weapon. Unfortunately, deployed Soldiers sometimes get complacent and forget they have a magazine with ammunition in their weapon. That mistake can have a disastrous outcome.

In one particular unit, a group of Soldiers completed their mission for the day, so the next order of business was weapons maintenance, which is imperative when conducting combat operations. A clean, functioning weapon ensures combat readiness. Cleaning and maintaining weapons is a deliberate process that requires planning, focus, skill and inspections.

The Soldiers gathered inside a tent (their living area) and disassembled their weapons on cots. As they cleaned their weapon’s parts, they chatted about the day’s events, reflected on home, snacked and watched movies.

An experienced Soldier at one end of the tent finished cleaning his weapon and reassembled it. The final step after assembling the M4 carbine is to conduct a function check to ensure it works properly. A function check for the M4 carbine is conducted without ammunition or the magazine. The function check will confirm the mechanical operation of the weapon through a series of selector lever movements and trigger squeezes. This is a skill level 1 task, and all Soldiers should be familiar with this procedure.

In this particular case, the skilled and experienced Soldier put a loaded magazine into the magazine well of the weapon and started his function check. (Right now, you should be yelling, “Stop!”) This was not the correct way to perform a function check with an M4 carbine. The other Soldiers in the tent were unaware this tragedy was unfolding as weapons cleaning progressed, conversations continued and movie plots developed. The experienced Soldier attempted a function check with a loaded magazine in the weapon and discharged three rounds into a Soldier who was napping on a nearby cot. Tragically, the Soldier died from his wounds, and the Soldier that pulled the trigger was later punished according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

So what went wrong? The first step in weapon maintenance is to ensure the weapon is free and clear of all ammunition and therefore safe. For an M4 carbine, this can be accomplished by pointing the weapon into a clearing barrel or safe direction, removing the magazine, locking the bolt to the rear, visually inspecting the chamber and double-checking the magazine well (as well as showing your battle buddy) and returning the bolt to the forward position. The weapon will not discharge because the chamber was inspected and free and clear of ammunition. The weapon is now safe to disassemble and clean.

Weapons maintenance should be treated as a scheduled event and supervised. Watching movies or other distractions are contributing factors to inattentiveness and can cause accidents. Ammunition should be stored separately from the cleaning area but accessible when in a combat environment. Weapons should be treated as loaded at all times, and muzzle awareness is imperative. Keep fingers off triggers until time to engage a target. Always assume a weapon is loaded when receiving it from another person and inspect it to ensure it is clear of ammunition. Finally, never conduct a function check of an M4 with a magazine in the weapon! Engaged leaders can make a difference and prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

  • 1 August 2013
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 13251
  • Comments: 0