By Maj. John Strain II, Georgia Army National Guard, Atlanta, Ga.July 25, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (July 25, 2013) - Of the lessons learned during our brigade's yearlong rotation in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III, none have returned to me more than the words "complacency kills." That warning was emblazoned on a T-barrier in the center of Forward Operating Base Saint Michael as a daily caveat to our greatest planning measures, pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections.
The complacency kills sign served as a somber reminder of those Soldiers who'd been seriously injured and killed as a result of an accident or combat. The message was a warning to wake up and follow our standard operating procedures. Regardless of the losses, however, the warnings became increasingly faint until the next week, when the lesson was applied once again.
Overconfidence was more predictable. Its presence was marked by the rotation of every new unit that showed up. An air of superiority exuded from officers and noncommissioned officers that they were above the situation and would set a new standard without adherence to lessons learned by the unit they replaced. This overconfidence was met by an enemy that changed its tactics, techniques and procedures more often than we did, as if they read our playbook prior to every period.
Unfortunately, complacency and overconfidence are even more prevalent at home than in theater. We see it in the number of off-duty accidents, as compared to those at work, as well as in under-reporting. Both are signs of a complacent and overconfident Soldier. We are paying a high cost in injuries, quality of life and senseless deaths due to our inability to apply combat lessons to the home front.
Several years ago as a leader in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear unit, I received a call from two team members. They were frantic after being exposed to a live agent while working in a confined area. Without personal protective equipment, both were concerned about the immediate and long-term effects of this lethal substance. They were evaluated, treated and released, as there was no immediate effect. The tragedy lies in the fact that there was never an accident report on this incident. It was stifled at the command level due to fear of the repercussions. No evaluation was made to identify the complacent measures and overconfident attitude that allowed loose bottles of the substance to remain unsecured or permitted Soldiers to work in a confined and unventilated area without the required personal protective equipment. No reporting, no lessons learned and no improvements made.
I'm a firm believer that the only way for us to conduct operations in an acceptable risk environment is when Soldiers properly perform PCCs, leaders thoroughly conduct PCIs and commands report and investigate even the most benign violation of safety standards. "It can't happen to me," "We are special," and, "We don't need PPE," are the same fallacies that are killing our Soldiers off and on duty. "Stay alert, stay alive" could not be more applicable than today. Soldiers are human, and we make mistakes. If we don't learn from these mistakes, we will pay with our life and the lives of our comrades.