A Lesson Learned
November 15, 2010
It was a good training day. We were conducting a command-sponsored train-the-trainer event for M-249/M-240B machine gun qualification tables to show subordinate unit Leaders what "right looks like." So far, we had executed well and "right" looked pretty good.
We started early in the morning with a huddle and went over the pre-execution checklist. All details were dispatched and completed on time. Following a safety and range procedures briefing and a quick preliminary marksmanship refresher training session, the range was "hot" by 0800 and we sent the first round downrange by 0830. Things were going well. Murphy must have been on leave because he certainly hadn't shown up today.
We conducted all of our firing tables, including the 10-meter zero/qualification, 100- to 800-meter day transitional and night transitional fire. More than 100 gunners and assistant gunners went through the course during the 10 hours of daylight, burning up more than 70,000 rounds. As nightfall approached, the range was still hot and lively. All pieces of the machine were hard at work with 10 lanes going.
Because of our shooters' inexperience, I posted a safety for each lane during the night fire, as part of our risk assessment and mitigation process. The assigned range safety officer (RSO) was doing a great job observing all moving parts forward of the firing line and regulating traffic.
Prior to going hot for night fire, I had held a short planning huddle to rehearse the shutdown and clearing of the range and recovery back in the rear. I could tell that everyone had put in a hard day's work and felt good about the training. Still, we were getting a little tired and looking forward to a hot shower and going to bed. I think that was around the time Murphy showed up. We cleared the range with the RSO personally clearing each M-249 at a central point as the weapons came off the range. Somehow, one of the weapons made its way to the staging tables without being cleared. I personally oversaw the range-clearing execution and could see our RSO doing his job. However, someone didn't follow the route or proper procedure for clearing weapons off the range and brought an M-249 to the table with a round in the chamber.
Fortunately, when we conducted a second check on the weapons with their feed tray covers up, we spotted the round in the M-249. We avoided what could have been a fatal accident, but the experience left its mark on all of us. With more than 150 personnel buzzing around the range policing brass and tearing down equipment, had this weapon discharged, chances are someone would have been injured or killed.
That night we learned an important lesson: We are never immune to the dangers caused by complacency. We all joke that Murphy's Law gets in the way of every good plan just when the execution phase begins. However, I believe Murphy usually shows up when we let down our guard - like when we reward ourselves for our hard work before the mission is complete. We sometimes give ourselves and each other "attaboys" and forget that we're still in the fight. No matter how well an operation is going, if it's still going, anything can happen!
Our near miss taught us that being complacent and letting down our guard can lead to tragedy. Thankfully, we learned that lesson without it costing a Soldier's life.