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The Mission vs. Safety Struggle

The Mission vs. Safety Struggle

U.S. Army Reserve Command/Safety Directorate
Fort Liberty, North Carolina

In the Army, conflicts of interest can arise between the mission and safety due to the inherently dangerous nature of military operations. The military’s primary mission is to achieve tactical or strategic objectives, project national power or maintain readiness for potential conflicts. However, ensuring the safety and well-being of Soldiers is also of utmost importance. Conflicts of interest may arise when mission requirements prioritize accomplishing objectives quickly, timely gathering of resources is difficult or the operational environment forces calculated risky decisions. This can create tension and potentially compromise safety or the mission.

In certain situations, such as time-sensitive operations, there may be pressure to complete missions swiftly. This can result in shortcuts or compromises in safety procedures for the sake of mission accomplishment. During exercises and missions, operations and personnel tempo are typically high, causing stress in the sustainment of operations and crisis management. It is quite common for first-line leaders or supervisors to take chances to prevent showstoppers, avoid embarrassment, satisfy a commander’s intent and follow the mission-first or failure-is-not-an-option mentality.

In addition, military operations are generally beset with resource limitations. Whether during training or real missions, limited resources — such as equipment, personnel or supplies — often create situations where safety measures are reduced or overlooked to accomplish mission goals. Frequently, military personnel are forced to be innovative and do what they can with what they have for the mission. This can lead to increased risks for the military personnel involved. However, such situations are not always a byproduct of a lack of planning or preparation. Unfortunately, it is practically an expected way of doing business in most military operations.

Perhaps most critical to safety is that military operations often take place in hazardous and high-risk environments such as combat zones or training exercises. Balancing the need to achieve mission objectives with the safety of personnel in these challenging conditions can present complex dilemmas. Army doctrine empowers and encourages first-line leaders to make decisions while under fire and on the move. As a result, young and inexperienced leaders are entrusted to make risky decisions on the fly, leading safety to take lower priority in the name of mission accomplishment.

It has been roughly 30 years since I, as a young private first class, had my first experience with this mission-versus-safety struggle. One morning at the motor pool, I was approached by two senior noncommissioned officers. One was my platoon sergeant and the other was the motor sergeant. They showed me some forms and asked me to sign them. The transaction was not open for discussion. Once signed, I was right then and there licensed on several pieces of military equipment I had never seen, including a 5-ton expandable van, a deuce-and-a-half, smaller commercial utility cargo vehicles, and trailer and generator endorsements. The intent was to facilitate our unit’s upcoming deployment to Northern Iraq for Operation Provide Comfort.

Many years later, I continue to see Soldiers, NCOs and officers “making things happen.” And it is not just with Army vehicles, but with weapons, tents, antennas, heavy equipment — you name it. While I admire the commitment of Soldiers to push through to get the mission done, I can’t help but wonder how many preventable accidents may have resulted from this mentality where safety takes a backseat for the sake of mission accomplishment. All I know is that in my situation as a young private, I had several very close calls in theater due to my lack of experience with the equipment. I was one of the lucky ones.

Addressing these conflicts of interest between mission and safety requires a comprehensive approach at every level in military units that includes proper training, risk assessment, adherence to safety protocols, effective command leadership and clear communication between Army personnel and their superiors. The military constantly strives to balance the imperative of accomplishing missions with safeguarding the well-being of its service members. In the end, safety and mission do not have to pose a conflict of interest. Instead, they must be viewed as a continuous process that complements the successful execution of an operation as one seamless progression.

  • 4 February 2024
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 432
  • Comments: 0