FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 18, 2019) - There are many things in the desert that can hurt you. When you are unfamiliar with the area, it is hard to recognize when some of those things are present. Having a battle buddy can help mitigate those risks. I often thought adults should be responsible for themselves and didn't need another Soldier with them at all times to make sure they're behaving. As my time in the Army has progressed, my thinking changed. The following incident is an example why.
During a recent deployment to the U.S. Army Central Command area of responsibility, I mentioned to the RQ-7B maintainers my preference that at least two unmanned aircraft system repairers (15E) be present during every launch and recovery. Even though our experienced maintainers were more than capable of accomplishing pre-launch tasks autonomously, I knew there were many unforeseen hazards. I didn't want any of my skilled maintainers being taken out of operations for something that may have been prevented had there only been one other person present. Due to a lapse in judgment, that is what almost happened.
It was July and the weather was hot and dry. We were supporting ground operations with 24-hour intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and had established a good battle rhythm. We were able to allow the six maintainers to work on three shifts, eight hours each -- 0800-1600 hours, 1600-0000 hours and 0000-0800 hours.
The morning shift was getting ready for our 1000 hour launch and, unbeknownst to the platoon leadership, the maintainers only had one 15E at the launcher performing the pre-flight. A young maintainer on his first deployment was doing everything correctly, just as he had for the past few months. This time, however, was different. It wasn't different because of operations, set up or anything the aircraft operators were doing. It was different because an irritable, aggressive and deadly saw-scaled viper decided to coil up on the rails of the launcher.
A saw-scaled viper found in Afghanistan is believed to responsible for more human deaths than all other snake species found in the region combined. Thankfully, the maintainer, as he was running his hand down the strap of the launcher, heard the hissing sound the viper makes when it feels threatened. Alarm bells immediately went off in the maintainer's head and he stepped away safely.
Had the maintainer not heard the viper and been bitten during the pre-flight, there is a good chance he would have died. He was alone and away from the ground control stations and main living area for the rest of the platoon.
Fortunately, we were able to use this close call as a teaching moment and emphasize the fact that it wasn't because we thought it took two for the job. We knew they were proficient in their duties. It's for the unforeseen hazards. Soldiers are irreplaceable assets in our platoon and we want them looking out for each other. We did miss our launch time while we waited for pest control to remove the uninvited visitor, but we didn't lose a maintainer. That's what was most important.
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