CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 CRAIG GRAVES
B Company, 2nd Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment
Iowa Army National Guard
Whenever I hear about lightning-related injuries in the military or civilian community, I always share my experience. My hope is that it provides a little awareness about the dangers of a potentially deadly natural phenomenon.
When going through pre-mobilization exercises at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, I learned that while the area wasn’t as prone to out-of-the-blue storms like those seen in the Southeastern states, the weather could go from pleasant to deadly in a matter of minutes. On this particular day, the weather started out normally. We were conducting forward arming and refueling point (FARP) operations for UH-60s in an open field adjacent to the airfield and had everything set up and running.
Our metal-framed modular tent for weather protection was set up near a tree on the high ground, and we had a HMMWV parked next to it for radio communications with the aircraft. To make monitoring transmissions easier, we ran an auxiliary speaker from the HMMWV into the tent. Not that it’s imperative, but we were running a two-point “Y” setup with a HEMTT, and the pilots flying the aircraft were doing their best to land directly on top of a 5-gallon water can we had anchored as a landing marker.
Early in the afternoon it was quite evident a storm was building. As it continued to grow and move closer, we had constant communication with operations about our distance to lightning strikes in the area. Once strikes were within 10 miles, another NCO and I sent the rest of the team back to the barracks. He and I stayed behind to defuel the lines and close the windows on the tent and HMMWV. Just as we had everything closed, the skies opened to a torrential downpour.
Rather than get drenched, we took shelter in the tent. Honestly, the dangers of lightning weren’t even on my mind. I was more concerned with staying dry rather than making the trek across an open field to the barracks. But things were about to get interesting.
As we watched Mother Nature’s deluge, my hair started to stand up on the back of my neck. (Just FYI, this is an indicator that a close lightning strike is imminent.) Before I knew what was happening, there was a blinding flash, followed immediately by a clap of thunder that made a C4 detonation sound like a mouse whisper. After a few choice expletives and making sure our extremities were still attached, it dawned on us what happened.
A bolt of lightning had struck the tree next to our tent and arced to the HMMWV antenna, which was still up, and fried the radio. The electrical current then followed the speaker cord into the tent. And guess who was standing in the doorway of the tent, right on top of the speaker cord, watching the storm? That’s right, this guy.
I was just six feet from the HMMWV, which is not an ideal distance to be from a lightning strike. Take my word on this one. In addition to the white-hot heat that emanated from the strike and my ringing ears from the thunderclap, I was also lucky enough to feel the current travel up from my feet and out my shoulder, dissipating to the metal crossbeam over the door.
My fellow NCO fared about the same. As the electrical current traveled up to the speaker box, it energized the metal-banded folding table he happened to have his knee propped against. He ended up with an entry burn on his knee and an exit burn on the back of his opposite shoulder as the current traveled to the aluminum camp chair on which he was sitting. At that point, I knew exactly what a Hot Pocket feels like in a microwave. I had a metallic taste in my mouth as every particle in my body was ionized.
After that shocking experience, we quit worrying about the rain and high-tailed it back to the barracks. We were then sent to the medic, where we spent the rest of the afternoon hooked up to an EKG and other medical devices. I consider both of us lucky that we walked away with only minor burns. It could have been much worse.
Hindsight being what it is, if we had to be outside, the best place would not have been under the lone tall tree on the top of a hill in the middle of an open field. Your teachers were right when they told you that in elementary school. It was also a bad idea to stay in a tent and leave the radio on with the antenna up. Our best option would have been to seek shelter inside the HEMMTT. Had we not had that, we could have crouched in a low area (regardless of the rain) out of standing water. Ultimately, though, we should have egressed back to the barracks prior to the storm arriving.
If you don’t have an accurate weather forecast or radar in the field, you can always follow the 30-30 Rule. If, from when you see a lightning strike, you are unable to count to 30 before hearing thunder, it’s too close and you need to seek refuge somewhere safe. Once the last lightning strike is seen, wait 30 minutes before resuming your training. That guidance may not be perfect, but it could save your life.
When caught outside during a thunderstorm, keep the following tips in mind to protect yourself from lightning strikes:
- If in the woods, take shelter under the smallest of a group of trees. However, come no closer than 2 meters from the base of that tree.
- Find a ditch or depression and assume the lightning safety position.
- Find the cab of a 5-ton or any other vehicle, roll up the windows and sit with your hands in your lap.
- Find a substantially constructed building, go to an inner room and wait out the storm.
- Stay away from radio antennas, masts and guy wires. Do not use your radio or cellphone at all.
- Stay away from areas near lakes and rivers.
- Keep away from natural lightning rods such as powerline towers, telephone poles and tall trees.
- Never stand under a single tree in an open field.