Hit the Brakes
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
Author’s note: The names of the Soldiers mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
Several years ago, my Army Reserve unit was mobilized and sent to Iraq. As this was early on in the operation, the unit had to provide for its own resupply runs to Kuwait. One day, a buddy of mine, Sgt. Jones, volunteered to be one of the drivers for the company’s M35 two-and-a-half-ton truck. (For you youngsters, it’s commonly referred to as a deuce-and-a-half). Jones was looking forward to getting out of Iraq for a couple of days and taking advantage of the swimming pool at Camp Arifjan, a logistics base in Kuwait. He wouldn’t make it, though, thanks to some poor decision-making.
The night before the mission, Jones asked me to be his assistant driver on a trip to the fuel point to top off the vehicle. When he started the vehicle, a buzzer went off, indicating the brake pressure was too low. That was normal and, usually, the buzzer stopped when sufficient air pressure was reached. In this case, however, the buzzer didn’t stop. I told Jones there was something wrong, to which he replied, “Don’t worry about it.”
Somehow we made it to the fuel point, which was about two miles away, and back without incident. (Don’t ask me how he did it, but Jones was able to drive a deuce-and-a-half without air pressure in the brakes.) Upon returning, I told Jones he needed to let the motor pool know about the brake pressure problem so they could fix it before the 600-mile drive to Kuwait the next day. Satisfied I had done my duty, I went to bed.
The next day, Jones left on the resupply mission with Spc. Smith, a school-trained 88M (motor transport operator) with limited driving experience. Smith was driving the first leg of the mission and I’m sure you can guess what happened. Sure enough, a vehicle without air pressure for its brakes can’t stop, and it rear-ended a HMMWV, injuring its three occupants. Fortunately, nobody died or suffered permanent disabling injuries.
There was an investigation into the mishap, and although I didn’t read the report, I presume it concluded that the crash was caused by a combination of operator error and mechanical failure. Lucky for him, Jones was not disciplined. Apparently, the investigation did not uncover his willful neglect to have the brake problem inspected at the motor pool.
As for myself, I’ve concluded that I should have informed the chain of command — or at least the motor sergeant — about the vehicle’s defective brake system. Yes, it was Jones’ primary responsibility. But it was also my responsibility as an NCO aware of an unsafe situation, and I failed to take action to correct it.
I think there are a few lessons to be learned from this mishap.
- Vehicle commanders and crewmembers must make sure their vehicles are in a safe condition before departing on a mission.
- If you know of an unsafe situation, even if it is not within the scope of your primary responsibilities, take corrective action. You might save a life or prevent a serious injury.
- Be aware of the “knucklehead factor.” The knucklehead factor is the result of actions of individuals who choose to ignore safety considerations — even if they might be endangering their own life in the process.
- If a mishap could be the result of mechanical failure, take the next step and ask what should have been done to prevent the failure in the first place.
This mishap could have been much worse. In the end, no one was seriously injured and we all learned some important lessons we were able to carry with us the remainder of our deployment and beyond.