Remember last Christmas? Back before most of us knew what a coronavirus was. Before COVID-19 became a thing, and before all our lives were impacted by the pandemic. We’ll probably look back on last Christmas as we prepare for this year.
For most, it was a happy time. We’ll still want to travel and see family and friends, especially after living so long with lockdowns and travel restrictions. But I ask that you think about what “last Christmas” can truly mean as you read the rest of this.
The Army has lost 73 Soldiers in off-duty mishaps since last Christmas. That’s 73 Soldiers who won’t be with their loved ones this year. And fiscal 2020 was the best year in Army history for off-duty accidental deaths. Let me say that again: Fiscal 2020 was the best year in Army history for off-duty accidental deaths, but 73 families are missing their Soldiers regardless. Christmas 2019 was the last any of them would celebrate.
While every fatality reported to the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center is tragic, mishaps over the holidays are particularly painful. There’s something about a report involving a Soldier going home for the holidays killed in a private motor vehicle or motorcycle mishap. Sadly, we get those reports every holiday season. Here’s a sample from the past five years.
· Dec. 13, 2015: Shane was on his way to his grandmother’s house when he failed to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic. He was in a hurry and didn’t make it — 2014 was his last Christmas.
· Dec. 10, 2016: Hunter was leaning out a window stringing Christmas lights when the decorative beams around the window gave way. He spent that Christmas in the hospital and will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Though 2015 wasn’t his last Christmas, it could have been.
· Dec. 22, 2017: David was cooking and had food on the stove when he likely passed out from alcohol consumption. He died from smoke inhalation — 2016 was his last Christmas.
· Dec. 18, 2017: Ron was on leave and drag racing with a friend. He lost control of his car and struck a tree, then a house — 2016 was his last Christmas.
· Jan. 2, 2018: Shawna was returning from block leave when she fell asleep at the wheel. Her vehicle crossed the median and struck another vehicle — 2017 was her last Christmas.
· Dec. 27, 2018: Jason was drinking with friends when he picked up a pistol that was supposed to be unloaded. The weapon fired as he spun it on his index finger — 2018 was his last Christmas.
· Dec. 28, 2019: Bruce was on block leave in his hometown and riding in a car with a friend who was driving while intoxicated. The friend lost control, and the vehicle rolled over. Bruce was ejected because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt — 2019 was his last Christmas.
While I changed the above names and dates for privacy, all these stories are true. Each of these Soldiers made bad decisions that led to their death or disability. I chose them from the unfortunately large number of mishaps that typically happen between Thanksgiving and the end of exodus because they demonstrate the most common mistakes Soldiers make during the holiday period.
We get in a hurry to get home. We drink too much to drive or even walk or cook. We try to stretch our leave to the very last day and then drive while exhausted. We get back with our buddies at home and do some of the dumb things we did in high school. We don’t wear seat belts. There are many, many more examples I could give you, but you just need to think about it.
I’m especially concerned about Christmas 2020. After dealing with the pandemic the better part of the year, restrictions are finally lifting and we’ll have the opportunity to get away for the first time in months. Please do so carefully.
Leaders, talk to your Soldiers. Find out what they have planned and mentor them. Lead even when you aren’t there with them.
Soldiers, make good decisions. Ask yourself, is it really worth that last drink or last day at home to risk your life on the road when intoxicated or tired? Think about all the Christmases to come when you make those choices.
These are risk management decisions. Is the risk really worth the reward? No matter how tough things have been in 2020, do you want 2019 to have been your last Christmas?
For tips on holiday safety, visit https://safety.army.mil/MEDIA/Seasonal-Safety-Campaigns/Fall-Winter-Safety-2020.