U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research,
Development and Engineering Center
All too often we hear about off-duty mishaps involving military personnel performing unsafe acts. How can these Soldiers spend months in theater or training without an accident only to be injured or die within days of returning home? Some believe it is due to a loss of situational awareness that results from the relief a Soldier feels when beginning a period of leave. The following is a true story of a Soldier who completed his tour of duty only days before he was involved in an off-duty firearms mishap. The Soldier’s name was changed to protect his privacy.
Trent Powell had served four years in the Army and just returned from his first deployment when he was given extended leave. He spent the first three days with close family and, most importantly, his new daughter, who was born during his deployment. On his fourth day home, Trent’s friend, Joe, asked him to join him for target practice. Joe was relatively new to shooting and hoped Trent would share some of his experience and skills with him. Trent gladly agreed and the two met on Joe’s land, where he had a large hay field.
Joe and Trent set up targets at various distances and competed to see who could make the best shot. After a couple of hours, Joe had grown tired of Trent beating him. When Joe noticed a squirrel about 80 yards downrange, he challenged Trent to a contest: Whoever hit the squirrel won free beer. Joe took the first shot and missed. Trent then took his shot, stopping the squirrel in its tracks. Unconvinced Trent had struck the squirrel, Joe suggested they go confirm the hit. Trent agreed and the two walked downrange to view the animal.
Upon reaching the squirrel, they noticed it had been wounded by Trent’s shot but was still alive. Without warning, Joe pointed his rifle at the squirrel and pulled the trigger. Trent’s next memory is lying on the ground facing the sky with Joe’s shirt pressed to his forehead. Unbeknownst to the two men, a rock was just under the surface of the ground beneath the squirrel. When the bullet from Joe’s rifle struck the rock, a piece of shrapnel ricocheted into Trent’s forehead.
Trent was lucky. The doctors decided the bullet fragment wasn’t a danger and the piece remains embedded in his forehead today. But not all Soldiers are as fortunate. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in off-duty incidents — many which result in fatalities. While private motor vehicle and motorcycle accidents account for the greatest number of casualties, off-duty firearms fatalities continue to be a problem for our Army.
Trent may have followed many of the proper procedures he had learned, but he let his situational awareness slip once he returned home. He never should have allowed Joe to leave his rifle loaded when they went downrange to inspect the squirrel. He could have also insisted they leave the weapons in the truck before heading downrange. We must always remember that even though we may not be on duty or in theater, danger is always present. It only takes one mistake to cause a catastrophe.