By GUNNERY SGT. STERLING B. GRAHAM, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, A Company, Camp Lejeune, N.C. October 3, 2011
Twentynine Palms, Calif., is home to the largest training area in the U.S. Marine Corps. Unfortunately, it's also home to a lot of accidents.
As a young noncommissioned officer, it was my third trip to Mojave Viper, a combined arms exercise we participate in yearly at Twentynine Palms. The base is located in the center of the Mojave Desert, and training is extremely challenging. Knowing this, we began preparing our Amphibious Assault Vehicle platoon on vehicle, weapons and environmental safety. After three months of training, it was finally time to make our pilgrimage out west to train. This year, however, we would learn a very hard lesson.
After a long flight to California, we arrived at our new home for the next 60 days -- Camp Wilson, which is located 20 miles from the main base. Camp Wilson serves as the staging area for all training units and is very basic. While there, we live in Quonset huts, eat field rations and enjoy few comforts of home. However, there is one bright spot at Camp Wilson -- the Warriors Club, which serves hot chow and beer. There is little time inside of the base camp once training starts, so any free time at the end is highly anticipated.
The last few days of training were hot and fast-paced, and the Marines had performed well during the exercise. Artillery fire, machine guns and infantry all moved in unison to complete the training. Everyone "smells the barn" at the end of an operation, and completing the Mobile Assault Course was no different. Now it was time to head back to Camp Wilson to clean the weapons and enjoy the Warriors Club.
The pace of the movement should have been an indicator of things to come. The Marines were speeding through the desert mountain passes and I had to tell my driver to slow down on several occasions. Once we were back at the base camp, there was plenty of work left to complete. The vehicles had to be safely parked and cleaned, and the weapons had to be cleared and cleaned. As always, I stressed to my crew the most important rule of clearing our weapons: Never point your weapon at anything you don't intend to shoot.
I then climbed on top of my vehicle to pull the barrel out of my M2 .50-caliber machine gun, ensuring my body was out of the way. It is easy to stand in front of the barrel of the weapon to uninstall it, and all the Marines knew this. The M2 has a huge round, and if it discharged anywhere near you, it was seriously going to hurt you. As I was removing the barrel from my gun, I heard a loud bang down the line. I immediately knew it was the sound of a discharging M2. The next thing I heard was terrible -- "Corpsman up!" I knew someone was hurt.
While removing the barrel of his M2, a crew chief violated one of the cardinal safety rules by standing in front of the weapon and was struck by a round that was left in the chamber. The round passed through the young Marine's chest and left a large exit wound. He was dead before he hit the top of the vehicle. To make matters worse, he had just re-enlisted and was engaged to be married.
As we sat around waiting for the commotion to subside, the fact that we had needlessly lost a brother began to hit us. The worst part was it easily could have been avoided if he had slowed down and maintained muzzle awareness. For those who were there that day, this tragedy will always be a reminder of what a weapon can do when we fail to adhere to the rules.
Looking for more information on safe weapons handling? Visit the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center's Range & Weapons Safety Toolbox. The site aids commanders and Leaders in the management of range operations and safe weapons handling by providing a centralized collection of resources to establish and maintain safe and effective training programs for ranges and both military and privately owned weapons. Check it out at http://safety.army.mil/rangeweaponssafety