Trust Your Gut
1ST SGT. GREGORY JONES
73rd Troop Command
Ohio Army National Guard State Safety Office
The military profession has a great deal of built-in danger. We do not need to go out of our way to increase risk. I have witnessed too many events throughout my career that could have been avoided had leaders slowed down and applied risk management. This was one such event.
It was my first annual training with the Ohio Army National Guard, and I was assigned to a light infantry company. Although I enlisted as a unit supply specialist, I was working as an indirect fire infantry Soldier. I was not qualified for this military occupational specialty (MOS), but had been reassigned in the mortar platoon because my Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE) position was removed from the unit manning.
Soon after arriving at Camp Grayling, Michigan, I was tasked as an ammunition bearer on an 81 mm mortar gun squad and introduced to my new squad leader and team members. My squad leader was an experienced sergeant, and my fellow squad members were hard-charging young Soldiers. They all welcomed me to the team and my training commenced.
My squad leader always stressed the importance of safety. We practiced squad drills from the initial laying of the gun to emergency procedures until we knew them forward and backward. While we were well prepared, we continued to practice emergency situations over the first few days of our live-fire training. These drills required us to evacuate the guns to a safe distance and only send two squad members back to remove hang fires and misfires. Although the squad leader stressed that keeping the gun tube clean would eliminate the need for these procedures, he said we needed to be prepared.
After a few days of firing live rounds, I felt comfortable in my new role and was slowly and deliberately being trained to handle additional tasks. I learned how to properly break down ammunition and prepare it for firing as well as how to drop rounds. I was also quickly picking up gun settings. While I felt prepared and was gaining confidence with every round shot downrange, my emergency training would soon be put to the test. We’d received some new rounds that had separate time-release fuses. We went through proper assembly procedures and settings for the timers, which could be set to explode before, upon or after impact.
We were conducting night fire operations with some of the new ammunition when our first emergency situation occurred. Although we swabbed after every few rounds, we had one hang in the tube. We evacuated the gun and waited for appropriate time before sending a crew of two back to extract the round. This is a particularly dangerous procedure, as the tube needs to be removed from the base plate and then raised to allow the round to slide back out. At any time the round could drop and hit the firing pin and then shoot out the open end of the tube. This would not be good for the Soldier holding the baseplate end of the gun. The round could also cook off in the tube, though unlikely.
Increasing the frequency of swabbing the tube appeared to do the trick since we experienced no further hang fires, but soon we noticed another problem. Every few rounds would explode in the air. This was happening far enough away that we did not receive any shrapnel, but my gut told me something was wrong. My squad leader talked to our platoon sergeant, who said keep firing the ammunition. We fired a few more rounds and continued to see fireworks in the sky. My squad leader renewed his concern to the platoon sergeant, who said there was no issue. My squad leader then asked us if we wanted to stop firing. We all agreed we were going to refuse to fire any more rounds until we figured out what was wrong. We were going on strike. Our platoon sergeant told us we would regret it.
The other gun continued to fire the ammunition at the platoon sergeant’s order until they realized we had stopped. They asked us why and we told them we were on strike until we knew it was safe to continue. At our urging, they joined us. Our squad leaders told our platoon sergeant and platoon leader that we were not firing any more rounds. There was a heated discussion, but we were not budging. As a group, we told our leaders that if they wanted the rounds fired, they could do it themselves. That is when calmer heads took over and a formal ceasefire occurred.
We sat on the firing point for two days while our leaders figured out what to do. Eventually, we learned that the lot of time-release fuses we were using were faulty, and all the rounds we had assembled at the site would need to be disposed of by explosive ordnance disposal.
Thirty years later, I am a dual-status federal technician in the Ohio Army National Guard as a safety specialist. Explosives and ammunition safety has become one of my focus areas. While taking one of the many ammunition courses I needed to become certified, I was reminded of this story. Ammunition in general is dangerous, and faulty ammunition even more so. The Army has procedures for handling faulty ammunition and now it is my job to ensure our leaders understand this. No Soldier should ever fear calling a ceasefire.