By Lt. Col. Edward Guilford Jr., Installation Safety Office, Camp Atterbury, Ind. May 13, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. - It was another Army class away from my family, but they were not strangers to me being gone. After three deployments, my wife and kids were accustomed to Dad leaving. We were all grateful this trip would last only six weeks. But with winter approaching, there were a lot of projects on the home front that needed my attention before I left.
Class was scheduled to begin on a Thursday, and the welcome packet stated that we should arrive a day early. However, we weren't required to sign in until class started. My plan was to leave Wednesday morning after taking our two youngest children to school. Unfortunately, I wasn't as far along on the house projects as I wanted to be, so I came back home after dropping them off.
My oldest son usually took up the slack while I was gone, but he was now away at college, so it was up to me to finish them. All I had left to do was cut the grass, vacuum the pool and put on the cover, and pack up for the trip. How long could that take? Of course, these things never go as planned, and time quickly slipped away. Before I knew it, I was starting an 11-hour trip at 9 p.m. Class began the next day at 7:30 a.m., so I had no other choice but to drive through the night.
Although I'd pulled many an all-nighter in college, I was getting a little too old for this. We'd taken a few all-night trips for vacations when the kids were younger, but I had always planned better. I would sleep for several hours before departing, and I had my wife as a very capable assistant driver. That was not the case for this trip - no nap or a-driver this time.
I began the trip by filling up the car with gas and grabbing a large Coke. All went well for the first couple hours. Around midnight, though, I started to get weary. I thought to myself, "How in the world am I going to make it all night when I am already exhausted?" My ego told me I could do it. Besides, what choice did I have?
Several times I dosed off, but the rumble strips on the side of the road woke me up before I did any damage. However, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling of, "What if there had been a car beside me and I ran them off the road? What if the car had been a family on their way to a fall vacation?" I tried all the tricks. I drank more caffeine, ate chocolate, turned up the radio, rolled down the windows and chewed ice. Finally, at 3:30 a.m., I'd had enough. My tricks weren't working any longer, so I exited the highway, found a well-lit parking lot, set my alarm for 3:55 and took a nap. I calculated that I could sleep for 20 minutes and still make my report time.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. I arrived at the training site just in time to check into my quarters, shave, change into my uniform and report into class right at 7:30 a.m. But this story could easily have ended in tragedy. What if I had run off the road and injured or killed myself or, even worse, hurt or killed someone else? Would it have been worth it? Would my wife have said, "Well, my husband is dead, but at least the grass got cut." Would the kids have said, "Dad's in a wheelchair, but it's OK - he got the pool cover on."
At the time, I felt as if I had no choice. But there is always a choice. I could have swallowed my pride and left some of those projects undone. I could have called the head of the course I was attending, explained the situation and arrived a few hours later. Sure, it worked out this time, but will it next time? Would I gamble with my life again? I don't think so.