FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 17, 2019) - For the last three years, I've had the privilege to be the full-time range manager and safety officer for Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center in Grayling, Michigan. Every year, we host thousands of Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and multinational forces for all tiers of training and range requirements. The largest training event we host is a joint multinational combined arms live-fire exercise, known as Operation/Exercise Northern Strike, which is held every summer. It is a brigade combat team-centric training exercise that integrates all branches of the U.S. military, as well as NATO and international allies, into a mass combined live event.
There are many challenges associated with an exercise comprised of 8,000 Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and NATO partners. As you can imagine, the risk level is through the roof. The multiple levels of cross-training and coordination present a multitude of potential hazards.
A disturbing trend I've noticed is the emphasis on readiness and training overshadowing the importance of safety. The exercise control group has pushed and endorsed safety on a consistent basis, even bringing a safety officer on full-time active-duty operational support orders to help mitigate the risk. Unfortunately, a battalion commander's decision to put safety on the back burner for the sake of mission and training accomplishment resulted in a Soldier suffering a debilitating injury.
It was 2017, and Northern Strike had evolved into a nationally recognized exercise -- so much so that Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the FORSCOM commanding general at the time, attended with the secretary of the Army. The main maneuver element was an Arizona Army National Guard infantry battalion integrated into an infantry brigade combat team from California. The battalion had 120 mm and 81 mm mortars providing indirect fire support for the ground maneuver platoons attacking across the training area and engaging pop-up targets scattered throughout the range complex. The battalion had drawn far more ammunition than it was going to use and, per its chain of command, opened every case in anticipation of putting on an extravagant display for the VIPs in attendance.
The battalion initiated the live-fire exercise and executed at a safe and effective pace. It wasn't quite proficient enough for the battalion commander, however, and all of the opened ammunition wasn't fired. Any Soldier or service member that has participated at a range understands the importance of not opening more ammunition than you expect to use. The local ammunition supply point, per regulation, will make it a long and tedious process to turn in any and all expended and unexpended ammunition. The process is even longer if you turn in opened and unused ammunition. Each round or munition must be counted and annotated, then repackaged and vaulted away in a specific magazine at the ASP. This additional time is seldom accounted for during the planning process, and units are not authorized to leave the training site until they clear the ASP.
So upon completion of all joint exercise-centric training, the battalion had a large amount of mortar ammunition to expend or suffer through the longer turn-in process. The battalion had plenty of range days and mortar tubes to fire the ammunition; what it didn't have was enough 11C-qualified mortar men, or teams, to fire off every opened round. To expedite the ammunition disposal process, an unplanned, uncoordinated and unauthorized cross-training event was pushed by the battalion commander to send any and all Soldiers that wanted to drop mortar rounds to the range.
One Soldier, an 88M truck driver who had hauled the ammunition to the range, wanted to take advantage of this unusual opportunity. However, he had never received training on the proper steps and procedures for dropping a mortar round into a tube. In addition, he had never been provided the appropriate level of primary instruction in firing a mortar system or received a safety brief. He was given a five-minute block of instruction on how and where to hold the round and to sweep the tube upon dropping it. Just five minutes of training …
The Soldier observed a couple of rounds being dropped for additional hands-on training. Then it was his turn. He approached the tube and base plate and received his instruction from the senior mortar man. The Soldier secured the 81 mm mortar from the gunner and was told to lift the round over the tube and drop it. What followed was chaos.
The Soldier performed every step of the task correctly except one: He failed to sweep the tube. The Soldier left his hands over the opening of the tube. When the round fired, it pushed through the opening of his hands. The fins on the bottom of the ammunition ripped through his hands and caused two large lacerations, one completely splitting his right hand in half like a hoagie sandwich bun, almost amputating his thumb. The Soldier was wearing gloves, which probably saved his left hand, but he lost all functionality in his right and eventually had his thumb amputated.
This incident resulted in a preventable Class B mishap. The major contributing factors include:
- Failure to recognize the risks involved with unqualified Soldiers firing ammunition
- Pressure to fire off every opened round to prevent a lengthy turn-in
- Failure to provide adequate training
- Failure to provide a safety brief to the injured Soldier
- Pressure to conduct a CALFEX in front of some of the top brass in the Army
There are commanders at all levels who are only focused on readiness, achieving Objective T and impressing the bosses to get that above-center-mass rating. Safety is not their primary focus. Until leaders at every echelon understand the importance of safety and implement it into all aspects of their training, mishaps will continue to degrade our readiness and impact our formations. Remember, readiness first, safety always!
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