CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 CHRISTOPHER A. CALDWELL
A Company, 3-1 Assault Helicopter Battalion,
1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division
Fort Riley, Kansas
It was the summer and I had been in the Army for a little over two years. I was an E-5 stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, as an 88L (watercraft engineer) assigned to the landing craft mechanized (LCM)-8594 Army vessel. I can best describe the LCM as the type of boat that was used during the storming of the beaches of Normandy. These boats are able to drive ashore and lower their ramps to allow troops or vehicles to exit.
It was a sunny afternoon and we had just finished our training for the day. Our boat captain — or coxswain, as they are referred to in the LCM world — was backing our vessel into the slip to secure it for the day. On this particular day, I was standing on the back left (portside) stern of the deck with the shoring line in my hand, getting ready to attempt to throw it around the concrete bit, or stanchion, on the pier. It was always a challenge for us 88Ls to throw the line and catch the stanchion on the first try. That’s something the 88Ks (watercraft operators) are trained to do.
As we neared the pier, I threw the line and surprisingly secured it around the stanchion on my first try. I was getting ready to tie off the line to the bit mounted on the deck of our LCM when I noticed the boat was moving forward. Unaware I had already secured my line, our coxswain, realizing he had backed in the vessel somewhat crooked, was pulling forward to straighten it. In doing so, all of the excess shoring line that was coiled on the LCM’s deck began to uncoil and make its way back toward the pier and around the stanchion that I had just thrown the line around.
In the boat world, we are trained to always make sure our arms and legs are clear of the line at all times. As watched the excess line uncoil and fall into the water and up onto the pier and around the bit, I looked down and saw that my right foot was planted firmly in the middle of the excess line. Before I had time to react, the line cinched tightly around my ankle. With a violent jerk, I was lifted into the air and sent flying off the back of the vessel and into the water.
I was probably 50 feet from the pier when I hit the water. I knew I had to act fast to get this line off my foot before I got to the pier. There was no way I, fully intact, would make it up the pier and around the bit. Something had to give. As I was underwater, I frantically tried to push the line over the back portion of my heel. Miraculously, with about 20 feet to go before reaching the pier, I was able to unsecure myself from the line that surely would’ve taken my foot or leg with it.
As I floated there completely in shock, a fellow crewmember leapt into the water to help get me to the boat ramp. An ambulance arrived shortly afterward and transported me to a local hospital. I don’t remember much about the ride to the hospital or my time in the emergency room other than I knew I was lucky to be alive and that this event wasn’t catastrophic.
There are two things I failed to do on this day that could have prevented this mishap. First, I was unaware of the situation and what was going on around me. Unknowingly, I was standing in the middle of the excess line on the vessel, which we were trained to not do. Second, I failed to communicate — or what we call in the Army aviation world, execute proper crew coordination. As a Black Hawk pilot, I now fully understand the importance of crew coordination. On this day, however, I failed to communicate timely and effectively, notifying my coxswain and other crewmembers that I had already secured my line around the stanchion on the pier. Had I’d done what I was trained to do and communicated my actions, this mishap could’ve been avoided.
Fortunately, the result of this mishap was only a fractured ankle and torn meniscus, which resulted in a much-needed 30 days of convalescent leave. Looking back, I’m grateful that was the extent of my injuries. I encourage all of you, regardless of your military occupational specialty, to never become complacent, do what you are trained to do, and always communicate your actions to your fellow crewmembers, teammates and Soldiers. Doing so could mean the difference between a successful mission and a catastrophic mishap.