Green Safety Dots: the Tyranny of Safety 2

This morning we bring you Part 2 of a wonderful diatribe by Chris Hernandez on the subject of risk assessments and the ongoing emasculation of the military. If you missed it, read Part 1 here.

Grunts: diatribe

In the Shadow of the Green Safety Dot Part 2

Chris Hernandez

As I mentioned yesterday, the risk assessment monster started raising its ugly head after Iraq.

My friends in the regular Army told stories of having their vehicles inspected and having to turn in risk assessments on Friday afternoons before weekends off. Suddenly, Soldiers were wearing reflective belts everywhere. When I went to Afghanistan three years later, bases like Bagram were so choked with safety rules that many troops would literally rather take their chances getting killed on a patrol than get screamed at for safety violations. Speed limits were ridiculously low. Reflective belts had to be worn after sunset. Troops running on the road in the morning couldn’t wear sunglasses. If a Soldier was going to drive a “Gator” 4-wheeler, he had to wear a helmet, eye protection and reflective belt. And attend a “Gator safety class”.

In Afghanistan, commanders kept adding safety rule after safety rule. Some troops had to wear every piece of body armor they had, even on missions where they carried crushing weight up and down mountains. Units were forbidden from going on missions in any vehicle smaller than a huge MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle). Not only did this severely inhibit some units’ abilities to carry out missions, it also made the Afghans, in their Ford Ranger pickup trucks, think we weren’t willing to take the same risks they were. That didn’t help build respect between our armies.

Many of the troops believed the rules weren’t as much to keep us alive as they were a Cover Your Ass exercise for the leadership.

Many of the troops believed the rules weren’t as much to keep us alive as they were a Cover Your Ass exercise for the leadership. “My soldier got shot by a sniper? Not my fault. I made him turn in a risk assessment and wear his body armor with Kevlar collar, throat guard, groin protector, shoulder attachments, side plates, helmet with nape pad, gloves and eye protection. So he was too weighed down to run to cover? Maybe so, but he didn’t die due to his leadership’s failure to document and mitigate risk.”

Of course, this wasn’t true in all cases. Many leaders genuinely believed all the armor and risk assessing would protect their troops. In some cases, they were right. In others, all the armor and risk assessments showed was a lack of appreciation for the operating environment. And maybe a lack of backbone.

I was extremely fortunate to be at an outlying firebase instead of Bagram, where I was more or less shielded from the safety craze. Nobody wore reflective belts where I was. You could drive a Gator naked and high on crack, and nobody would say a word. The war was not far outside the wire, and we had to become real soldiers, real quick.

By the time I came home, the War on Terror had lasted 9 years. In Afghanistan I saw that we soldiers had become more skilled, aggressive and eager for battle. The highest levels of the Army, however, seemed to have gone the opposite direction. And, in a development that terrifies me, too many troops seem to be following them.

I’ve seen Soldiers running on closed tracks, in civilian clothes, wearing reflective belts. At a recent training exercise a senior NCO ordered everyone to wear reflective belts at ALL times, everywhere on a tiny National Guard base where nothing happens. And to always have a battle buddy. So we wouldn’t get raped.

I’ve seen Soldiers running on closed tracks, in civilian clothes, wearing reflective belts. At a recent training exercise a senior NCO ordered everyone to wear reflective belts at ALL times, everywhere on a tiny National Guard base where nothing happens. And to always have a battle buddy. So we wouldn’t get raped.

Not long ago I was looking for a place to give a small group of Soldiers a physical fitness test. Just pushups, situps and a two mile run, early in the morning. We tried planning it at one base. But at that base you have to submit a request and risk assessment over a week beforehand. And have a medic present. And an aid bag. And ice water. And a cooling blanket. For pushups, situps and a two mile run.

So we tried another base. And found out we could use its track anytime we wanted. If we had a risk assessment. And a medic. And an aid bag. And ice water. And a cooling blanket. For pushups, situps and a two mile run.

I seem to recall, back in the late 80’s and 90’s, just going out for runs with my unit. No medics or corpsmen were around. No ice water or cooling blankets. Canteens and bottled water, sure. We kept eyes on each other in case of heat casualties. But we didn’t treat an easy PT test as if it was a combat mission. And gosh darn it, I don’t remember seeing Marines and Soldiers dropping dead from two mile runs.

Back then we didn’t have policies that convince troops any risk is to be avoided if at all possible. Heck, we might have even welcomed risks. After all, we were training for war. We expected to be in life-threatening situations. We wanted to be on the two-way range. To a degree, the risk-taking urge that inhabits most Soldiers and all Marines was then, and should be now, nurtured. It’s a necessary part of being an effective warrior.

No, that doesn’t mean we need to be suicidal kamikazes. It does mean we accept that combat is a dangerous world, where even those who take every precaution can still be killed or wounded. It means we embrace the courage of those who disregard mortal danger and do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. It means we shouldn’t reduce bravery to a chart balancing risk versus safety. It means we don’t train Soldiers to believe something as mundane as talking in a classroom requires a careful analysis of danger (no, not even if it’s just a training method). It means we shouldn’t act as if a physical fitness test, which we’re all supposed to be able to pass at a moment’s notice, requires mission planning more worthy of a combat patrol.

I hate to say this, but I’ve seen experienced soldiers – GOOD Soldiers – embrace the Army’s risk aversion. I’ve had sergeants ask, when I suggested we just run our PT test on a civilian high school track without a medic, “But what if something happens?” I’ve seen a fantastic training exercise shut down because we were going to fire Simunition rounds (soap pellets, similar to paintball rounds) at each other. Sim rounds are designed, intended to be fired at people. The trainers had all the protective gear we needed. But a senior officer thought “That’s just too dangerous.” I’ve seen an instructor on a range not allow Soldiers to run a simple drill, just a 40 meter sprint with an unloaded weapon and no gear, over flat ground in broad daylight, because “Somebody might get hurt.”

This kills me. High school kids run on high school tracks every day, without a medic. Preteen girls play paintball. Civilians with no military experience participate in dynamic shooting matches every weekend, where they run around on flat ground with weapons. But it’s too dangerous for Soldiers? For combat vets?

Sometimes I wonder when the Army is just going to hang rape whistles around our necks.

We didn’t join the military to be 100% safe all the time. If we wanted that, we wouldn’t have joined

. We’d never even leave the house, much less endure years of training, travel thousands of miles and suffer through Army-inspired utter foolishness, for the chance to bail out of an MRAP or humvee into a firefight just once in our lives.

Sometimes I wonder when the Army is just going to hang rape whistles around our necks. And make us attend mandatory “Stranger danger!” classes.  And issue those ropes with multiple different colored handles like preschools use, so platoon leaders can pull their troops around like children.

Haha. Just kidding, Army. No matter how tempting it might be, please don’t try to actually do these things. Or all the Soldiers, the warriors, who really want combat will just say “Screw the Army” and get out. And all you’ll be left with are troops with green dots on their watches who think a classroom lecture is so dangerous they need a risk assessment for it.

Respectfully,

Chris Hernandez

About the Author: Chris Hernandez is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he frequently worked with French elements of ISAF while training and mentoring Afghan personnel. He is also a veteran police officer, having spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. Chris will occasionally be doing some guest ranting here as well as on his own page when he’s not working on the sequel to his novel Proof of Our Resolve. Read some of his other work in The Statesman and on his blog.

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Wait until you see his upcoming fiction novel Line in the Valley – fighting between our troops against the Cartels in the near future. It’s going to be awesome. Read excerpts of that in his blog.

 

Mad Duo, Breach-Bang-CLEAR!

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