Lt. Gen. David Valcourt, the deputy commander of TRADOC, presented the Instructor of the Year award to Fort Knox's 1st Sgt. David Heideman.

After deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, Soldiers assigned to Fort Knox probably feel they're in a blast-free zone.

Well - maybe not.

Just ask 1st Sgt. David Heideman, who was recently named the Fort Knox and TRADOC Instructor of the Year. His job is teaching Soldiers-in-Training how to throw a grenade - without losing any body parts in the process.

Anyone who's watched basic training knows how regularly Murphy's Law comes into play. And the Christianson hand grenade range is no exception. In fact, the odds there may be higher.

According to Heideman, when he presents his block of instruction to 240 young recruits, they aren't at their best.

"They usually have been road-marched out to the range, so they're tired, hot, sweaty, and probably half of them are asleep during the (instructional and safety) briefings," said Heideman of Company C, 3rd Battalion, 81st Armored Regiment.

The pit from which the trainees must throw is roughly 5 feet by 5 feet square, with a front wall approximately 5 feet high, and a back wall only half as high, all of it surrounded by and compacted with sand.

When a trainee is in the confined space of the pit with Heideman just inches away from his face, nerves often flare.

"Most of them are scared to death," he said. "These (grenades) aren't dummies; they're live grenades. "

Given the nerve-wracking nature of the task, the traineess may have a mishap or two, including pulling the pin on a grenade then dropping it - the grenade -- into the pit.

"Oh, sure. It happens more often than you'd think," Heideman said casually. "We train for that scenario."

In addition to privates fumbling the grenade, other mishaps occur because many of them - unlike previous generations of teenage boys --cannot throw.

"This is the X-box generation, you know," Heideman said. "They have to throw two grenades successfully in order to graduate, so we try to spend a little extra time with those who need it."

His casual speech belies his steadfast attention to safety - an absolutely paramount feature of his job. His no-injury record attests to his expertise.

"There's no 'little' accident with grenades," he said. "They're designed to kill, designed to fragment. So a grenade is either out of the box or it's in."

Of course, every brigade has its share of those who want to showboat.

"The high school quarterbacks or pitchers want to launch the grenade a hundred yards," he said with a laugh. "But most of them have a death grip on the grenade once they get hold of it."

Once the grenade has been successfully thrown downrange, another problem sometimes surfaces.

"You'd be surprised how many of them want to stand there and watch the grenade explode. Some are just mesmerized," Heideman said. "We have to take them down (to the floor of the pit), because that's the only safe place to be. We tell them in the briefing not to be upset if they get a face full of sand; we don't have time to talk about it - we just take them down."

It takes a special kind of NCO to do the hazardous job, Heideman asserted. When NCOs return from a deployment and spend a day at the grenade range, it's quickly apparent who fits the type.

"You hear the explosions and feel the impact through the wall of the pit," he explained. "It's helpful for some -- they love the adrenaline rush -- but some hate it. You have to be able to do it all day long, especially in the summertime (when the brigades have a full complement of trainees). You can tell the very first day they're out on the range which of the NCOs are going to be able to do the job. Grenade NCOs have to be confident. "

And Heideman radiates confidence.

No stranger to the instructor's platform, he taught at the Airborne school and the Pathfinder course at Fort Benning, Ga. He competed and won Jumpmaster of the Year for two consecutive years as well as brigade jumpmaster and division jumpmaster.

After his deployment to Iraq, Heideman returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., where he was a platoon sergeant. There he was diagnosed with TBI and PTSD, but he refused help. He said his platoon sergeant job made it difficult to find the time for medical appointments, and other NCOs would have to cover for his absence. In fact, when he learned he would be transferring to Fort Knox, his reactions were mixed.

"Fort Knox is where tankers go to rust, right'" he said with a laugh. "What am I going to do there'"

Heideman's military occupational speciality is 11B, so he didn't think he would receive any constructive work.

But he was also relieved - believing no one would "mess with him" and he could leave his TBI diagnosis behind.

He was wrong. His chain of command strongly encouraged him to pursue treatment.

"Col. (David) Hubner (194th Armored Brigade commander) is a great guy," Heideman said. "He's a dirt Soldier - if I have to sleep in the dirt, he'll be in the dirt, too. He sat me down and told me I needed to take care of myself."

Reluctantly, Heideman agreed to the 10-week treatment course with Frazier Rehab in Louisville. He realized an improvement fairly quickly. Now, he keeps a notepad and pen with him at all times because his short-term memory is poor due to his frontal lobe damage. Anything he must remember is written down. He said a PDA wouldn't help him.

"I would just lose it," he said with a laugh.

"I have loved my time at Knox," he said. "I got fixed here, I finished my degree here. There are so many advantages to an assignment at Knox - anyone who doesn't take advantage of it is crazy."

The father of three sons, Heideman said he credits his success as an instructor to his mental pictures.

"I look at those bleachers full of SITs and see my 16-year-old son," Heideman explained. "I ask myself, 'what would I want my son to know if he was sitting in those bleachers'' and then, that's what I tell them."

According to his boss, Heideman is the consummate professional.

"He takes care of Soldiers, and strives to make them better," said Lt. Col. Mark Raschke, the 3/81 commander. "He is a dedicated leader and is one of the standard bearers for our battalion.

"He is absolutely deserving of this award. The Heidemans are a model Army family and have made significant contributions throughout Fort Knox. They will be truly missed as they head on to their next assignment."

The Heideman family is headed to New York for an assignment with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Heideman is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and the grandparents will be just a couple of hours away, so his sons are equally excited about the move.

"Nobody will be trying to blow me up, nobody will be shooting at me --- what's not to like'" he said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16