Off the Trail
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division
Fort Drum, New York
During one deployment, I learned a valuable lesson that I shared with every unit I was assigned to afterward: While technological advancements can help make our jobs as Soldiers a little easier, we must fully understand the capabilities and limitations of new equipment. Here’s what happened to us.
As a part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which was tasked with defending Saudi Arabia during the buildup to the ground war to liberate Kuwait, my anti-armor team was deployed into the desert as part of a defense in depth. Our tube-launched, optically tracked, wireless-guided weapon system had an issue, so we’d need to drive a High-Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle across 25 miles of desert to a maintenance unit located to our rear.
During the trip, we traversed a variety of terrain that included low hills, sand dunes and odd rock formations. We’d been operating in this area for a few months, and the three other members of my crew and I thought we had figured out this desert-mounted land navigation business. We arrived at the maintenance area without incident early in the morning and spent all day getting our equipment repaired. Just as the sun was setting, we departed for the return trip to our assembly area.
We didn’t think the trip back would be that difficult because of the landmarks we noticed on our way to the maintenance repair area as well as a well-defined vehicle trail we followed. In fact, the first part of the journey passed by without difficulty, and the boredom soon had the two Soldiers in the back of the vehicle snoozing in their seats. We were driving 15-20 mph and wearing our night optical devices (NODs). The night was clear, but the moon hadn’t risen yet. We still had good conditions for driving under NODs, and my driver was very experienced with their use.
As we followed the trail back toward our assembly area, we noted what we thought were the landmarks we saw during our earlier trip. However, as we began to climb what appeared to be a small hill, both my driver and I became uneasy about our route and discussed whether we’d driven down any similar grades on our journey to the maintenance area. Since neither of us recalled any terrain like this, we decided to stop at the top of the hill and look around. This proved to be a lifesaving decision because the trail ended at the top of the hill. On the backside was a steep, 200-foot cliff.
When we took off our NODs and looked around, we discovered we had lost our trail and actually climbed one of the landmarks we used to navigate to the maintenance area. It quickly became apparent that we had depended too much on the NODs. The things we thought were our landmark hills were just low rises that appeared larger under the limited visibility range of the NODs.
We backtracked to the main trail and for the remainder of the trip periodically checked our route without the NODs. We wanted to ensure what we were seeing with the NODs was really one of our landmarks. Eventually, we made it back to the assembly area safe and sound.
After we shared our lesson learned with our platoon, we set a policy to identify landmarks at 400 meters or closer when driving with NODs. We also stopped occasionally to check our route with the NODs turned off. Like other equipment, NODs provide great capabilities to our Soldiers, but we have to understand their limitations to use them safely.