By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneMay 23, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla. (May 23, 2019) -- The death of a Fort Sill Soldier March 23, on White Sands Missile Range, N.M., served as a cautionary tale at a safety briefing that preceded the 14th annual Freedom's Thunder Motorcycle Safety Rally here May 17.
Although he wasn't mentioned by name during the briefing, news reports identify him as Sgt. Ronald James (R.J.) VanZant, 24, a native of Bartlesville who grew up in Hominy and Yukon. After graduating from Hominy High School with the Class of 2013 he worked in the oilfields before enlisting in the Army on April 7, 2014.
He attended basic combat training while assigned to B Battery, 1st Battalion, 40th Field Artillery, and advanced individual training while assigned to B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 6th Air Defense Artillery. He was awarded the military occupational specialty of 14E, Patriot Fire Control Enhanced Operator/Maintainer.
On Nov. 18, 2014, VanZant was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 4th Battalion, 3rd ADA as a battalion readiness center clerk. In that capacity he deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Spartan Shield and was directly responsible for four Patriot firing batteries' maintenance and readiness.
On July 20, 2017, VanZant was assigned to 3-6th Air and Missile Defense (AMD) Test Detachment at White Sands Missile Range. There he participated in testing and evaluations of future AMD systems.
Less than two months ago, he became a statistic while riding a motorcycle he bought March 4. He went through the Basic Rider Course Feb. 12. John Cordes, safety officer for the Fires Center of Excellence, attributed the cause of his fatal motorcycle accident to a combination of excessive speed and misjudging the distance he needed to pass a vehicle.
"He clipped the rear corner panel of the vehicle, and it sent him into the wired barriers, like we have here on I-44. He hit that, he bounced off it, went across both lanes of the highway, where he hit this small fence, which ejected him off the motorcycle. His motorcycle followed him, and they both came in contact with the frontage road that was on the other side of the highway. And that was it," Cordes said.
VanZant leaves behind a wife, two children, his parents and grandparents, and numerous other family members.
Cordes said that Armywide, 13 motorcycle accidents have been entered into the data system since the beginning of fiscal year 2019.
Fort Sill Garrison Commander Col. Don King said that where he comes from, and that includes past units, "everybody owns a bike. So we spend a lot of time on our motorcycle safety training. We've got a lot of guys out on the road. We've got a lot of guys, it's their first time riding bikes, so they're underskilled and haven't had the courses yet. Or, they think they're better than their bikes, so they try to do things they are not designed to do."
King said one of his big concerns as a commander is making sure the riders have a good leadership program and that they maintain personal responsibility for staying safe.
Cordes said vests have been eliminated from the list of personal protective equipment (PPE) that riders on post are required to wear. They still need to wear a helmet, eye protection, and sturdy footwear.
Kevin Enlow with the Fires Center of Excellence Safety Office said the purpose of the Freedom's Thunder Motorcycle Safety Rally is "to help get our motorcycle riders back in the riding techniques before this busy season of riding."
The safety briefing is mandatory, the demonstration ride voluntary. The ride itself includes a skill event at Fort Sill's Motorcycle Safety Foundation Course to show riders what "right looks like."
"They're going to be doing a five-cone slalom," Enlow said.
A total of 164 riders attended the briefing. Seven groups consisting of 19 riders and one mentor each -- about 140 in all -- went on the ride.
Bike maintenance is all done by the units' motorcycle mentors before service members show up for the briefing.
The 40-mile route was projected to take an hour and a half or less to complete.
Sgt. Montez Irving, a Reserve Soldier with B Company, 2nd Battalion, 379th Regiment, 95th Adjutant General (Reception) Battalion was first to show up for the ride. By day he works in his battalion's personnel section, receiving the newest of the new recruits.
"This is my first motorcycle safety brief-slash-ride. I'm excited. I'm now the mentor in my unit. So now I have to brief the other Soldiers who ride," Irving said.
In his 3.5 years of riding motorcycles he's gone on many group rides before, but on this one he'll be learning the proper protocol for overall safety. What got him interested in this pursuit?
"Just the freeness of the wind and the bike. I go state to state. The farthest is Mississippi, which is 9 hours on a motorcycle. With Harleys, you have to stop every two hours for gas," he said.
He was on a Harley Ultra Classic, but said he usually takes his Yamaha sport bike when he goes through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge because of the curves.
Staff Sgt. Kenneth Howell is a drill sergeant with D Battery, 1-40th FA, who's between training cycles and got the morning off to go on the ride. He said he had to go back to class after it was over. His ride was a 2016 KTM RC390, an Austrian concept built in India by Bajaj. This was his first time to take it out on a ride of this length.
"I've done smaller stuff, but nothing quite this big," said Howell, adding that he's on this one because "it promotes esprit de corps and it promotes safety within the Army, as far as motorcycle awareness."
Howell is his battalion's motorcycle safety mentor. He said he believes the ride helps everybody who's on it.
"We've got some riders who have never ridden in larger groups. It promotes how to do it, teaches, and irons out the things in a controlled environment as we prepare to do something cross country," Howell said.