Driving on "Snooze Control"
March 24, 2011
Looking back, there have been a few occasions when I nearly made it into the "statistic" column. However, there is one that really stands out in my mind. It forever ended my perception that I was invincible.
I was a rookie reservist, a private first class in a transportation (heavy boat) unit, based in my coastal hometown of Morehead City, N.C. We were such a hodge-podge unit. Our boats (Landing Craft-Utility) were left over from the World War II era - hand-me-downs from the Navy. Nearly all our field manuals and technical manuals were copied from the U.S. Coast Guard. And to top it off, our training area was on a Marine Corps base. What a mess.
One drill, we were scheduled to qualify with our M-16s at Camp Lejeune, N.C. We were provided maps the Friday night before the drill weekend, as most of us would drive our own vehicles to the range. That would allow us to leave right after we qualified, helping shorten an inevitably long duty day. With a little luck, I could make it from home to the range in about an hour and 15 minutes.
I pulled out about 5 a.m. that Saturday morning in my Mitsubishi "Mighty Max" pickup and got to the range without a hitch. I didn't have any breakfast, but what the heck; nothing was open before 6 a.m. anyway. I would regret that decision later.
I reported to the range as ordered. Ever fire on a Marine Corps range' These Marines didn't allow Kevlar helmets on their range. "Wow, this is different," I thought, wondering how much they valued their noggins. After firing 40 rounds, several of us were released with instructions for the next day's drill. So, I turned in my personal battle cannon and jumped back in my pickup. Everything had gone fine so far. I'd found my way to the range, showed a paper target who was the "boss" and headed home for some grub. That is, I thought I was headed home.
It was about half-past noon and I'd been awake since 4 a.m. I was bee-bopping my way home headed north on the highway thinking, "Man - why do my eyelids feel like they weigh 100 pounds'" The hum of the engine and the buzz of the tires on the road were almost hypnotic. I was drifting gently into never-never land when, suddenly, I was jolted back into reality.
"BAM - BAM - BOUNCE - BANG - Ba-BOOM - Ba-BOOM - SMACK!
My eyelids shot wide open. My first thought was, "Holy crap - whoa camel - whoa camel - whoa!"
My "normal" day suddenly turned ugly really fast! It's difficult to convey in words how violently shaken in mind and body I'd become in less than five seconds. I was halfway off the road in a pickup bouncing up and down. Had I awakened one second later, I would have launched at 60 mph down a wet, grassy slope into a stand of trees!
As I tried to maintain control, I remembered being told, "Don't jerk the wheel," in my high school drivers' education class. I was careful not to force my truck back onto the pavement too quickly for fear of catching the front tire on the edge and flipping. While I was being bounced and tossed around, I steered gently to the left to get back on the highway. Fortunately, I made it.
Oh, did I mention this happened only 15 minutes after I'd left the range' That's significant because when your adrenaline fades after doing something, it's easy to become groggy, complacent and even incoherent.
On the upside, I'd maintained my vehicle. The fluid levels were good and my tires had good tread. I didn't have a lot of money, but I took care of my ride. If I hadn't, something else - perhaps a blown tire, could have led to a tragedy. I believe my life was spared that day for various reasons. Maybe one was to share my experience with others.
So what dangerous ingredients went into the mix for my near-disaster that day' How about poor diet (no breakfast), fatigue and complacency. It doesn't take all that many things going wrong to get yourself hurt or killed. Had I taken the time to identify and assess these hazards - the first two steps of composite risk management - I could have reduced my risks. But I was complacent that day. I'd forgotten that the difference between life and death can be as short as one tick of the second hand.
Maybe this is a simple story that I took too long to tell. However, falling asleep at the wheel kills more Soldiers than you might think. Don't let yourself become one of them.