FORT RUCKER, Ala. (February 14, 2019) - It was a warm Sunday in Iraq, and I was at a combat outpost in the far west as the officer in charge of a detachment of construction engineers. They were working like bees to upgrade the living conditions at a particularly austere base. We were ahead of schedule on all of our projects, so I decided to give the troops a well-deserved half-day off. Time for a barbecue!

I sent a runner over to the quartermasters to grab a box of previously promised T-bone steaks. My squad leaders did the rest, procuring sodas and getting our homemade grill fired up with scrap lumber. I know what you're thinking: This is a safety magazine, so someone is going to get hurt cooking the steaks - either from the flames or some type of poisoning from using treated wood as cooking fuel. Nope!

Someone does get hurt in this story, but it had nothing to do with the grill. My troops were construction experts, and that grill was built better than a bank vault. My team welder had 20 years of experience, and the grill he built was such a work of art that the outpost commander later commandeered it for himself. And the wood was good, clean Douglas fir stud scraps, so there was no danger of poisoning. The hurt happened later.

The steaks turned out great and everyone had a good time. Afterward, the detachment corpsman asked if he could be excused to visit some Marines in the recon unit on the other side of the outpost just a few hundred yards away. Normally, I would have said no. A medic belongs with his unit, but this corpsman was a mature-looking 30-something-year-old Soldier. "Be back in an hour," I told him. I figured he couldn't get into too much trouble. Boy, was I wrong.

Twenty minutes later I got a squawk on my radio. "Chief, they want you over at the aid station ASAP," radioed one of my squad leaders. That's usually not a good sign. "Roger that," I replied as I hotfooted it over to the aid shack. When I got there, I saw my corpsman with his leg up on a treatment bed, looking sheepish and in considerable pain.

The attending medic told me it appeared the corpsman had a bad fracture of the tibia, the larger of the two bones in the lower leg. The injury was bad enough that they'd have to evacuate him to a surgical hospital immediately. Although he was in a lot of pain, the corpsman was fairly stable. While the medics treated another Soldier who'd suffered a 10-inch-long laceration to his lower arm after tripping over a tent rope, I got the story out of the corpsman.

He told me one of the Marines had brought a football and someone suggested a game of touch "sand ball." Teams were quickly chosen, but one side had one less man than the other, so my medic volunteered to play. On the first play, the medic went out for a pass, pivoted on a patch of dirt and his lower leg shattered like glass.

"What were you thinking?" I asked him. "Why didn't you just say no?" He shrugged and said he didn't know why, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. Besides, he really wanted to play. That's when I realized I made the mistake of assuming he had a lot more maturity than he actually did.

He told me that after he volunteered to play, the Marines turned him down because he was the corpsman. Instead, they could just rotate guys in and out to make the teams fair. But my corpsman insisted and, against their better judgment, the Marines agreed. The result? One down corpsman.

The corpsman was evacuated by helicopter that night, along with the Soldier with the laceration. Eventually, he ended up in Germany getting the full orthopedic surgery treatment. I found out later he'd shattered his leg in three places. The fibula, which is the smaller bone, was the only thing holding his leg together. The guy with the laceration received the orthopedic treatment as well. He'd severed half the ligaments in his arm.

Lessons learned
As a result of this mishap, I ended up without a corpsman for a few weeks until they could fly me out a replacement. However, the mission continued. In addition, I had to write a lot of reports for what turned out to be a Class B mishap that could have been avoided. It was small price to pay for the more valuable lesson I learned: When safety is concerned, age or assumed maturity has no relation to common sense.

I made the mistake of judging a person by his appearance and assumed someone who looked mature would not make a rash decision. I skipped the usual pep talk about staying safe. Maybe if I had sat down with my corpsman for two minutes and reminded him of his obligation as the sole unit medic to be ready at all times to respond to emergencies rather than be an emergency, he might have listened to the Marines telling him to sit out the game. The lesson here was simple and as old as the military itself: Check to ensure your Soldiers understand the safety message. After that, check again.

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