JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (Jan. 3, 2012) -- We'd been there about two weeks when my 12-year-old cousin proudly showed us his father's M16 rifle.

Before handing me the rifle so I could get a closer look, my cousin took out the magazine and placed the safety lever on safe.

I raised the butt to my shoulder and aimed it outside. I had no idea how a rifle worked and I pulled the trigger, pretending to shoot targets. After watching me for a few minutes, my cousin wanted to show me how it worked. He grabbed the rifle from me, switched off the safety and pulled the trigger.

BANG! Smoke filled the room as we stared at each other in shock. Almost immediately, we heard my uncle screaming and saw him running toward us.

As it turned out, the last time my uncle fired the rifle, a round automatically loaded in the chamber. Not knowing this, my cousin thought that the rifle was safe by simply removing the magazine.

Although spared from my uncle's beating, the idea of accidentally shooting somebody -- or being shot -- stuck with me for the rest of my vacation. In fact, the incident still resonates with me today.

Now that I'm one of the "safety guys," I tend to run this scenario through my head. I try to make sense of it all and wonder what we could've done differently. We were young and didn't recognize the danger of handling a weapon.

The rifle should've been locked up and not accessible to us. My uncle also should have talked to us about the dangers associated with handling a gun.

This incident taught me a valuable lesson at a young age and made me realize the importance of educating others -- Soldiers, civilians and family members -- on weapons handling safety. We were lucky no one was shot that day, and my experience truly made an impact on how I view and do things to this very day.

I'm a firm believer in learning from life-changing events. Learning from those mistakes may one day keep us from ending up seriously injured or, even worse, dead.

No one is immune to weapons-handling accidents. In fiscal 2011, five Soldiers died because of negligent discharges. Remember to THINK weapons safety:
--Treat every weapon as if it is loaded.
--Handle every weapon with care.
--Identify the target before you fire.
--Never point the muzzle at anything you do not intend to shoot.
--Keep the weapon on safe and your finger off the trigger until you intend to fire.

The U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center developed the Range & Weapons Safety Toolbox,, to aid commanders and leaders in the management of range operations and safe weapons handling. The toolbox provides a centralized collection of resources to establish and maintain safe and effective training programs for ranges and both military and privately owned weapons. Visit the site today!