Scratching the Surface
MASTER SGT. BRYAN M. HINZMAN
Headquarters and Headquarters Company,
555th Engineer Brigade
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
It was 3 a.m. on a Sunday when I received a call from the brigade staff duty NCO. As a company first sergeant, you dread the middle-of-the-night phone call because the news is never good. This call wasn’t an exception. One of our Soldiers had been involved in an accident just 200 meters away from the battalion and brigade headquarters. I hung up the phone, crawled out of bed and prepared for the worst.
Since I lived only a mile or so from the accident scene, I arrived within a few minutes to see a still-smoking car in the middle of the road with its right-front tire missing. Fortunately, the Soldier wasn’t injured, and the military police had already taken him to the station. This is where our investigation began.
I learned that the day before the accident the Soldier and others in the squad had been invited to a party at the squad leader’s house. The squad leader did the right thing and took the Soldier’s keys when he said he would be drinking alcohol. As the party progressed, the Soldier drank heavily and ate very little, and it was obvious to the group that he was very intoxicated. Since he didn’t have a ride home, at about 1 a.m., the Soldier was given a place to sleep it off in one of the adjoining rooms. Shortly after he went to bed, the party ended and the other guests went home.
At about 2:30 a.m., the Soldier woke up and started looking for his car keys. He found them exactly where the squad leader had left them — in a bowl on the kitchen counter. The Soldier got into his car and started to drive home, which was only three miles away, on a road bordered by unit facilities and a housing area.
The Soldier was driving about 50 mph in a 25-mph zone when he failed to negotiate a curve. His car left the road, traveled up an embankment and crashed through a fence in the housing area. Once he passed through the fence, the Soldier’s vehicle struck a porch on a family’s home, severing the poles that held up the structure. He also ran over the family’s lawn mower, BBQ grill and a playhouse before striking the back porch on another home. The Soldier then attempted to go back through the damaged fence and drive away. An MP said the Soldier was still trying to drive away when he arrived on the scene, but the car wouldn’t move due to the front tire being ripped from the vehicle.
After I’d looked over the accident scene, I made some phone calls to the chain of command. I also phoned the platoon leader and platoon sergeant and asked them to meet me at the MP station. Once there, I was informed that the Soldier’s blood alcohol concentration was .21, more than double the legal limit of .08. At that point, the Soldier was still in no condition to answer questions, so I told the platoon sergeant to take him to a temporary room in the barracks and ensure he was monitored.
The next day, I questioned the Soldier about his reasons for drinking and driving. His response was, “I thought I could make it home because it was so close.” We then learned from the Soldier that the party had taken place at his squad leader’s house. At that time, the platoon leadership called in the squad leader to get his story. He told me he’d taken the Soldier’s keys to ensure he couldn’t drive and placed them in a bowl in his kitchen. While the squad leader’s intentions were good, his plan to keep the Soldier from driving drunk ultimately failed because he did not take into account all of the risk factors or implement true risk mitigation measures. Leaving the keys in plain sight made them too easy for the Soldier to find. Had they been secured out of sight, this incident may never have occurred.
Unfortunately, the squad leader did what is done all too often in our Army — perform a risk assessment that only scratches the surface of the hazard and fails to delve into the things that truly cause accidents. Had he taken time to use proper risk management, the Soldier never would have been able to gain access to his keys.
While the outcome of this accident was bad, it could have been much worse. The Soldier who lived in the first home that was struck told me he had almost let his children camp out in the backyard that night. Had he, the children’s tent would have surely been hit by the intoxicated Soldier. It was also fortunate that there wasn’t anyone else driving or walking on the street where the accident took place, and that the intoxicated Soldier was not injured.
In the end, the damage caused by this accident was limited to the monetary and disciplinary action taken on the Soldier and the squad leader who hosted the party. This accident could have been prevented with better risk management. I hope that this incident serves as a reminder that we can’t just scratch the surface with our risk management measures. We must dig deeper to ensure we’ve done everything in our power to stop a preventable accident.