FORT IRWIN, California — The stories of soldiers here at the Brigade Support Area medical tent are more likely to appear in a workplace safety journal than Soldier of Fortune.
Trips, slips and falls are the most common causes of injuries, followed by vehicle accidents. The mundanity of these accidents doesn’t make them any less dangerous, though. In wars through the mid-20th century, accidents and disease have often been bigger killers of soldiers than bombs and bullets.
The number of military accidents has dropped since World War II, but they’re still significant, said Andy Whitish, the safety officer for the Fairbanks-based 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. It’s his job to train soldiers how to avoid the most preventable accidents.
The more than 4,000 Fairbanks soldiers from the Stryker brigade have had below-average rates of accidents, Whitish said. As of today, the soldiers are seven days into their 14-day exercise fighting a mock enemy of nearly equal strength here at the National Training Center in Southern California. They’ve made it through the opening days, which are historically the most dangerous at the National Training Center.
That’s not to say the training has been without incident.
There had been 42 safety incidents as of Thursday morning. Safety incidents cover a wide category of reportable issues that range from fender-bender crashes without injuries to fatal accidents. There had been no Class A or Class B incidents, the most serious categories. There had been eight Class C injuries, which are serious enough that a soldier misses work because of it. The most serious of these was likely a soldier who suffered a concussion when she was struck in the head with a box while unloading a box below it, Whitish said.
Whitish, the safety officer, is a civilian who lives in North Pole. He’s an Army veteran who has been to the National Training Center 10 times as either a soldier or a civilian safety officer.
He had positions in the Army and National Guard, ranging from medic to military policeman to drill sergeant.
When out working as a safety officer, Whitish wears red Carhartt suspenders that make him easy to spot at a distance. The large green letters on his baseball cap read “safety.” He sports a white goatee, which he grew out into a beard last year to serve as the brigade’s Santa Claus in December.
Whitish’s approach to improving safety involves candy and jokes. He carries bags of candy in his truck, and he stops to hand it out and banter, sometimes with a joke, with nearly every soldier he sees. His limited joke repertoire varies widely from dad jokes to raunchy ones. He tries to calibrate the level of bawdiness and even the type of candy he gives out to match the audience.
He explained that it’s important to build rapport with the soldiers so they’ll be willing to share information with him and will listen to his advice on safety issues.
“They see a civilian and they’re thinking, ‘What do they want from me?’ Often they think they’re going to get yelled at,” he said. “I try to educate, I try to inform, I try to coach. A lame dad joke brings a smile. You build rapport with them. These are my soldiers.”
Whitish reached the frontier of the mock war Wednesday by bouncing along a desert trail in a silver pickup. It took an hour from the main Fort Irwin entrance to reach the closest encampments. It’s not on the scale of Alaska, but the training area feels remote. It’s a nearly three-hour drive to reach the installation’s gate from either Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Inside the training area the only sights in all directions are the brown dusty earth, occasional steep hills and sagebrush.
At closer distances, various mobile camps come into view: assortments of green and brown trucks, tents and containers tucked into the sides of hills to make them harder for enemy forces to see. One of the largest of these camps is the Brigade Support Area, the headquarters for brigade functions, including medical care, transportation and maintenance.
Soldiers in the unit at this camp, the Brigade Support Battalion, looked tired Wednesday morning. They had moved their temporary tent city three times within the previous three days as the Stryker brigade rapidly occupied more enemy territory. A few sleeping tents had been set up, but many soldiers had been sleeping in their vehicles. Although the camp was out of sight and more than 5 miles from the enemy forces, it was still in range of simulated enemy artillery attacks as well as aircraft attacks.
Whitish walked through the camp handing out candy and complimenting the soldiers on their rapid movement. The unit should change its name to grasshopper because it’s always jumping forward, he said.
Outside the medical tent, Whitish spotted a generator that hadn’t been grounded correctly, so he showed the soldiers how to fix the hazard with a length of buried cable.
Inside the medical tent, the line between real and simulated combat can get especially confusing because the clinic treats both actual injured soldiers and simulated injuries generated as part of the exercise. Like the other soldiers, the medical crew is here to practice.
In military terminology, the make-believe parts of the exercise are called “notional.”
In notional terms, hundreds of soldiers have already been killed in the exercises. The simulated casualties this week included Col. Matthew Brown, the brigade commander, who was notionally killed by artillery fire.
Much like video game characters who must wait a few seconds before respawning when they’re killed in the game, soldiers who notionally die in the exercise go to a purgatory tent called the personnel holding area, where they wait for a soldier to simulate the process of requesting new additional units before they are allowed to rejoin the fight.
Soldiers can end up in the medical clinic with a notional injury if the laser system shows they’ve been hit by small-arms fire. Soldiers use their usual M4 rifles at the National Training Center, but they shoot blank cartridges and lasers instead of bullets. Soldiers can also be notionally killed or injured by a notional bomb or a shell fired by enemy artillery or aircraft.
Some of the injuries come down to the discretion of the exercise referees, known as observer coach/trainers. Sometimes it has more to do with practicing or teaching a specific skill than making the scenario realistic.
For example, on Tuesday afternoon, Staff Sgt. Bobby Burbank was working on one of the brigade’s eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles when his unit underwent a notional artillery attack. Artillery attacks can be simulated using a firecrackerlike simulator or simply by a observer coach/trainer announcing an attack is taking place.
Burbank thought he had survived the notional attack, but when he climbed out from under the Stryker, he said an observer coach/trainer handed him a card that described his notional injury, a gunshot wound to the chest.
“I was like, ‘How? I was under a damn Stryker, how did I get hit?’” he said, describing the experience Thursday morning. He said he doesn’t understand how he was hit when he took cover or how the notional gunshot wound makes sense given the attack came from an artillery shell, not an enemy rifle.
The notional wound meant he had to be evaluated and treated. The first-aid treatments for his injuries were real, not notional.
“My battle buddies drug me over to the Stryker, they checked me out, they put an NPA (a tube used to keep an airway open) down my nose, gave me an IV, put a chest compression, wrapped me in a thermal blanket, put me on the litter, put me in an LMTV (a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle), and I was on my way,” he said.
Getting medically evaluated and transported to a medical tent ultimately took about three hours, Burbank said.
Soon after arriving at Fort Irwin, the Fort Wainwright soldiers were reminded that training comes with both notional and real risks. On Jan. 13, one Fort Hood-based soldier was killed and three were wounded in a tank rollover.
Whitish told the story of last month’s rollover a few times Wednesday as he made the rounds. It was a cautionary tale about the importance of seat belts.
“All the seat belts were rolled up with duct tape on them so they’re all nice and pretty and out of the way,” he said.
When one soldier responded that he was sympathetic to the desire to modify the seat belt this way in order to be able to get in and out quickly without risking catching something on them, Whitish shook his head.
“If you want to do that when you go down range for real war, that’s one thing,” he said. “But getting killed in a training accident?”
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors. Friedman is in Fort Irwin, California, this week covering the activities of Fort Wainwright’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.