Saved by the Belt
SGT. 1ST CLASS DUTCHY A. INMAN
297th Regional Support Group
Camp Denali, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
The importance of wearing a seat belt is stressed before just about every convoy, training safety briefing and weekend. Like most young Soldiers, I listened to the words and would “Hooah!” after my leaders were finished briefing. Also like most young Soldiers, I was only responding out of habit, not compliance.
I have a law enforcement background, so I understand the importance of seat belts; they can and do save lives all the time, which is something I’ve seen firsthand. I’ve been known, however, to violate the seat belt policy, both in my private motor vehicle and when riding in military vehicles. Doing so nearly cost me my life.
My unit was preparing for a 500-mile convoy in GSA vehicles. These Ford F350s weighed more than 18,000 pounds and had huge modified boxes instead of cargo beds to carry our equipment. We were going to leave early in the morning to avoid the local school and work traffic, something we had identified during a previous after-action review as a potential hazard. That meant I would need to be awake by 0230 so I could make the hour-long drive to work, complete my final pre-combat checks and inspections, and be ready for our scheduled departure time.
The next morning, I arrived at work about 0345 and got busy. By the time my section sergeant arrived, I’d had three or four cups of coffee and was powering through a night of little sleep. Once we got everything completed, we went to the normal briefing area and awaited the standard convoy and safety brief. Everyone got strip maps and a convoy safety brief.
I had completed this same trip at least a dozen times, so I was only partially paying attention to the brief and thinking about how comfortable the backseat of those trucks were. I had every intention of curling up to take a nap and allowing one of the junior team members to drive. However, I noticed the driver we’d identified was looking like he was also struggling to stay awake.
After the brief and before we loaded up, I asked the driver how he was doing. I got the typical response from a subordinate: “I’m good, sergeant.” I didn’t believe the Soldier, so I told him he would not be driving. I would take the first leg. There were four people in our truck: my section sergeant, two team members and me. The plan was for me to drive until the first scheduled stopping location and then the one of the team members would take over.
Within 30 minutes of leaving, both team members were in the backseat sleeping and I was feeling alert. I’d filled up on coffee, had the music playing and was wargaming with my boss about the things we were going to do once we arrived. We made our first mandatory stop with no issues. I was still feeling good, so I refilled my coffee cup and resumed driving. Halfway to our next stop, a scheduled refueling, I starting to tire. I told my section sergeant that when we arrived, I was going to let one of the other guys take over driving duties. He said he would drive to allow the Soldiers more rest time.
Once we arrived at our refueling stop and switched seats, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I fell asleep. About 40 or 50 miles down the road, I felt myself begin to nod off. However, I could not get comfortable and kept waking up, readjusting and kicking my feet up on the dash. I am not sure how long that went on, but eventually I got tired of my seat belt being in the way, so I slipped it off, curled up to the window and finally fell asleep.
I guess my section sergeant did not see me take off the seat belt because once he realized I was not wearing it, he woke me. After some grumbling and banter back and forth, I put it back on. I knew we were within 15 miles of our destination, so I tried to close my eyes to get a couple more minutes of sleep before the real fun began.
Just minutes later I heard the section sergeant yell, “What the hell is she thinking?” I looked out the windshield and saw we were on course for a head-on collision with a Subaru. The impact with the other car seemed like it happened in slow motion. I thought we were spinning out of control, but we actually never spun. I was being thrown around like a rag doll, or that’s how it felt. I remember hitting the dashboard as the air bags deployed and pushed me back against the seat. The team member sitting behind me hit my seat about the same time I was pushed back, which threw me forward again.
Fortunately, no one was seriously injured that day. My section sergeant and I were both taken to a local hospital for evaluation, some minor treatments and eventually released. The following day, we were both pretty beat up and sore, but we were alive. We were sitting at breakfast when I thanked him for saving my life. Had he not woken me to put on my seat belt, I can only imagine what the outcome would have been.
Since that day, I have worn my seat belt every time I get into a vehicle — on and off duty — and ensure everyone who rides with me is buckled up too. During safety briefings, I no longer just say the words; I show a couple of pictures of my accident so my subordinates and superiors see reality behind it. A seat belt can save your life.