FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 26--It's the second full day in the National Training Center (N.T.C.), and a majority of the battalions comprising 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division has reported at least one negligent discharge of a weapon each.
In other words, in just two-plus days in the desert, a handful of friendly weapons have gone off when they weren't supposed to. A couple have been M4 carbines, the smaller, not-too-distant cousin of the M16 rifle. At least one was an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon ("SAW"), which fires the same pinkie-finger-sized ammunition as used in the M4. Rather than shooting one or three rounds at a time, however, the SAW is a light machine gun. It belches belt-fulls of the stuff.
All that pales, however, to the damage potentailly caused by the hot-dog-sized round launched by a vehicle-mounted .50-cal. M2 Browning machine gun. The "ma-deuce" fires is classic killer, a design mostly untouched and unrefined since its invention in the 1920s. The machine gun is fired by depressing with two thumbs a wing-shaped switch at the rear of the weapon. The switch is called the "butterfly."
Because the Red Bull units are only using blank ammunition at NTC, no one has yet been injured. That doesn't offer much relief to soldiers and their leaders, however, who treat every incident like the real deal. "Train like you fight, fight like you train."
The Army doesn't talk about "accidents." Rather, it speaks of "incidents." The circumstances surrounding the unplanned or unintentional firing of any weapon are formally investigated by an officer, and reported through safety representatives, to determine the what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future. Safety is deadly serious business.
The brigade commander--"Ryder-6"--has called in his staff to attend the evening's teleconference with his battalion commanders. Red Bull staff are typically supposed to be seen and not heard, but such sessions are one of the only ways a brigade staffer can hear directly from their customers out in the field. Logistics guys listen out for logistics problems, communications guys listen out for communications problems, and so on. If you hear the same things from more than one commander, you know you've got a problem that potentially affects more than 3,000 of your fellow soldiers.
The brigade has been in the field for three days and nine meals, and battalions are only now beginning to feed on hot "Class-A" rations. There have been problems throughout the supply chain, pushing goods from unit to unit, breaking them down into smaller amounts along the way. The NTC, after all, is a realistic simulation of real-world challenges. "Time and distance is going to be a factor," observes the brigade commander, "and it's going to be that way."
In some cases, however, the lack of hot chow may have been self-inflicted. One unit, recognizing that it required live ammunition in order to conduct live-fire exercises the next day, reprioritized and requested the next supply convoy deliver less food than ammo. With limited cargo space, it's either "guns or butter." This time, the guns won.
Of course, the same listening technique of "three times briefed makes a trend" also works for those in command. And tonight, the brigade commander is hearing the continuation of a couple of trends that date all the way back to June, when the unit was conducting pre-mobilization training at Camp Ripley, Minn.
It's routine and it's basic stuff, but that doesn't make any of it acceptable to the commander: Soldiers are losing stuff, they're getting careless, and they're needlessly getting hurt.
In a few cases, soldiers are losing track of what the Army calls "sensitive items"--high-dollar and low-level-classified equipments. Things like the M68 Close Combat Optic (C.C.O.), an aiming device that attaches to a rail on a soldier's M4 carbine. The device isn't considered "secret," but is supposed to be accounted for on the twice-daily sensitive-item inventories. Once installed, there's little reason to take it off. Soldiers were instructed to safety-wire such equipment to their rifles, months ago.
"What did we say back at Camp Ripley? 'Dummy-cord your stuff,'" says Ryder-6. "Tie your s--- down. No excuses. That's the order." The commander keeps his anger in reserve, but his frustration still heats up the room a little.
He urges his commanders to emphasize the fundamentals--"mission first, but safety always"--and tries to keep the messages positive. One commander reports a soldier has twisted an ankle while walking around in the darkness on a Forward Operating Base ("FOB"). "We're doing some great training out here, and I realize that soldiers are going to get hurt," says Ryder-6. "But walking out of a TOC and into a water drainage ditch? That one hurts."
"Heat injuries are going to be next," he observes, noting the lack of hot meals and the daily desert highs in the 100-plus-degrees Fahrenheit. Troops have to eat, as well as drink, in order to hydrate and stay healthy. Some troops don't like to eat in the heat, however, particularly when it's a never-ending menu of "Meals, Ready-to-Eat." They start skipping meals.
The most troubling trend for commanders, however--indeed, for anyone who works with or around a weapon--are negligent discharges. Each battalion commander takes his turn in the telephonic hot seat, and rattles off the high- and low-points of the day. Four out of six commanders has at least one negligent discharge on which to report.
The commander whose unit had the negligent discharge of the .50-cal. machine gun says that it occurred when a soldier accidentally "leaned on the butterfly." An awfully small action, resulting with in an awfully big mistake with an even bigger bullet.
The Army's own "butterfly effect."
Before walking onto any FOB, each soldier dismounts and points his or her weapon into a sand-filled "clearing barrel." (There are similar procedures for vehicle-mounted weapons, ones that don't use the barrel.) Soldiers pull the charging handles of their individual weapons, and have an observer confirm there is no ammunition present in the chamber. Then, the soldier pulls the trigger of the weapon while it's pointed into the clearing barrel. If the weapon goes off the clearing barrel will catch or direct the round. It still counts as a negligent discharge, but it's arguably safer than having a still-loaded weapon go off in a barracks or dining facility.
"Buddy-clear your weapons," Ryder-6 says, figuratively footstomping his point. "We have hired junior leaders--NCOs and platoon leaders--to make sure that happens. Make sure they do their jobs."
"It's easy," he says. "It's too easy ..."