Are You Experienced
MAJ. BRIAN WARD
U.S. Army Central
Shaw Air Force Base
Sumter, South Carolina
I was 19 and assigned as the commo platoon sergeant driver as my unit prepared to head out for annual training. I had very little driving experience, only receiving my civilian license the morning of the movement. While I’d operated some Army vehicles and taken military driver familiarization training, I’d never driven anything a significant distance. This would be my first encounter with traffic, rain, speed and nerves.
I was a part of a military convoy and advance party team that would drive from Jeanerette, Louisiana, to Fort Polk. We’d travel at a convoy speed of 50 mph with rest stops every hour. Actual drive time in a personal vehicle was about two hours and 45 minutes; in a military convoy, the trip would take us about four and a half hours. As a novice driver whose experience behind the wheel consisted of running to the grocery store, driving to school with my mother, who worked around the corner, or going to friends’ houses within the community, I was not ready for this movement.
The day started about 0800 at the St. Mary Parish Courthouse’s driver’s license office. I completed my written and road tests within two hours, receiving my driver’s license and legal permission to operate a vehicle unsupervised. I drove home extremely excited about the convoy to Fort Polk. I hurriedly got on my uniform and threw my bags into the car so I could be at the armory by noon. My mother had a stern conversation with me about paying attention to things going on around me while I was driving. Also, a few days prior, my father had taken me for a drive and pointed out the bad habits I was developing and how all vehicles don’t drive the same. What mattered most to me was that I was now a legal driver and my commander would soon sign my military driver’s license.
The convoy would consist of 13 vehicles, including a fuel truck and tow truck. I would be in Position 5, driving an M998 HMMWV and carrying my platoon sergeant and a sergeant first class, who would ride in the cargo area with the personal bags and section equipment. The initial movement would begin with nine vehicles before picking up four more in New Iberia, about 20 miles into our route.
While I waited for the movement to begin, I cleaned the windows, checked the radios and adjusted the mirrors. Once the convoy brief was complete and all of the drivers were standing at their vehicles, it began to rain. It was just a brief shower, but it was enough to rattle my nerves. When the rain stopped, the convoy commander shouted, “Mount up,” prompting everyone to get into their vehicles and start the engines. Within minutes, we were moving. The assistant drivers where calling out turn statuses while drivers fought to maintain their intervals. After just 10 minutes of driving, it began raining again, causing us to reduce our convoy speed to 45 mph.
At 1400, we picked up the four additional trucks in New Iberia and continued to our first rest point, a Love’s truck stop off Interstate 10 in Lafayette. After 15 minutes, the HEMMT fueler driver blew the horn, indicating it was time to mount up. We were soon moving again toward our next stop, a state rest area in Lake Charles.
The convoy was traveling at 50 mph when it started raining again. This time, however, we did not reduce our speed. It was now later in the day and traffic had increased, with civilian vehicles migrating within our convoy. My platoon sergeant told me to move to the left lane to pass a slower-moving civilian vehicle, where I began to exceed catchup speed. When I attempted to move back to the right lane, another car darted in, causing me to pull back to the left. I overcorrected and went onto the left road shoulder. I then began to fishtail and eventually lost control. The equipment in the cargo area wasn’t secured and shifted, resulting in the vehicle tipping.
Fortunately, the vehicle did not completely overturn; it simply came to rest on its left side. The sergeant first class who was riding in the troop/cargo area only suffered slight injuries, as the equipment fell away from him. My platoon sergeant and I were uninjured. The vehicle sustained damage to the hood, driver’s-side mirror and bows on the cargo area.
There were multiple elements at play in this mishap: an inexperienced driver operating a vehicle he was unfamiliar with, high traffic, adverse weather, external stimuli and other distractions. All occupants were wearing their personal protective equipment, which likely helped reduce injuries, but the cargo was not secured because it did not exceed the tailgate height. There wasn’t any damage to civilian vehicles or property.
This mishap was one the scariest moments of my life. Up to this point, I had very little experience even driving a car — let alone a four-wheel-drive tactical vehicle. Learning to drive means learning what to do and not to do in a given situation. Driver training and experience is what gives us the skills we need to deal with hazards. However, regardless of the number of years you drive, there’s always the possibility to experience something new, so we must never get complacent.
Mishaps like mine are the reason the Army recently completed an extensive rewrite of Army Regulation 600-55, The Army Driver and Operator Standardization Program. The intent was to improve and emphasize the importance of driver training as well as improve the overall training experience and processes required to manage an effective driver training program. Leaders must take a hard look at their driver training programs and see if they’re up to speed with the changes in AR 600-55. Driver training, compliance with regulations and leader enforcement of known standards can make all the difference in preventing Army mishaps.