Go with Your Gut
SGT. 1ST CLASS TRAVIS MACMANUS
Maneuver Center of Excellence
Fort Benning, Georgia
After returning from a 13-month deployment, I took an assignment as an instructor for initial entry training Soldiers. This would allow me more time with my family while simultaneously broadening my skillset. At the time, new instructors were required to complete a two-week training course that focused on being approachable, effective communication and a list of prohibited actions with trainees. Once I completed the course, I reported to my unit, where I was informed I would be assisting in driver training instruction immediately.
The driver training course would consist of trainees operating Bradley Fighting Vehicles on a closed track, and I would be the vehicle commander in charge of ensuring safe operation. I had never driven a Bradley, so I went to the motor pool and familiarized myself with it as much as I could. I told the lead instructor I was worried about commanding a vehicle without a license. His response was none of the instructors were “really” licensed and that was just how things worked there. I had a gut feeling that this was a recipe for disaster.
The next day, as the lead instructor divided the trainees into groups alphabetically, I became concerned that there was little in the way of a safety brief or instructions. Once I had my group of trainees, I outlined my own safety brief, which included actions to take if they lost communication with me. In short, if they were unable to contact me for more than 30 seconds, they would gently ease off the accelerator and pull to the side of the track until communication was restored. They would also stop after each lap to avoid endangering trainees entering or exiting from other vehicles in front of them.
I began conducting the training and everything was going fairly well. The trainees were responding to my instruction and, aside from a few jerky stops, the first group performed without incident. The next group began with a trainee who verbally acknowledged everything I said with, “Yes, sergeant!” We were halfway through the first lap when he stopped responding. This happened to another trainee earlier when his headset became disconnected and he had pulled over as briefed. This trainee, however, did not.
The situation became worse as the trainee began his second lap. Instead of stopping to wait for another Bradley ahead to finish loading trainees in the back, he zoomed past them, narrowly missing several Soldiers and a drill sergeant. Realizing that he was not going to stop, I quickly scurried down from the hatch and began worming my way through the “hell hole” (the aptly named path to the driver compartment which is basically a narrow tunnel) toward the driver — a task made more difficult as there was some vehicle equipment partially blocking it. It took me twice as long as it should have to reach the driver and have him stop the vehicle.
Once we stopped, I removed the driver and began reprimanding him, trying to determine why he did not follow the brief given to him. He only responded with, “Yes, sergeant,” when it finally donned on me that English was not his first language. After a few more questions, I learned he was not very fluent in English, and my accent made it difficult for him to understand me. His drill sergeant later confirmed that the trainee sometimes struggled to comprehend instructions due to the language barrier.
I immediately stopped training and began identifying Soldiers in my group who did not speak English as their first language. I also cleared the equipment from the hell hole. This would become standard operating procedure for the unit for all future driver training, as well as identifying those who had no experience operating a vehicle before enlisting.
In hindsight, all of this should have been identified prior to training. I realized the initial safety brief was lacking, even as inexperienced as I was on this platform. Although I believed I mitigated the risk, my lack of familiarity on the vehicle made it much more difficult to spot potential shortcomings with regard to what actions to take in the event of a communication breakdown. It was painstakingly clear that I was in no position to ensure safety on a vehicle that I was not licensed to operate, let alone one that weighs more than 24 tons.
My initial gut feeling of unease was warranted, but I ignored it. My inexperience as an instructor also blinded me to the possibility that my instructions were not fully understood by all equally. Although this incident improved how the unit conducted training going forward, the reality is that we narrowly avoided a potentially fatal situation that was completely avoidable had we followed established guidelines.
For sample SOPs and other resources, visit https://safety.army.mil/ON-DUTY/Drivers-Training-Toolbox.