- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s an amazing number that I had never seen before: Since the beginning of the U.S. operation in Iraq, more than 90 U.S. military personnel have been killed there by negligent weapons discharges. Yet I can barely remember seeing official references to the phenomenon. You can be openly gay in the military, but negligent discharges are still pretty much closeted. Here, Billy Birdzell does some asking and telling about the ND problem.
By Billy Birdzell
Best Defense directorate for delicate subjects
During OIF II, a USMC helicopter pilot accidentally shot and killed himself in the ready room while spinning his pistol on his finger like John Wayne.
During my battalion’s first Iraq deployment negligent discharges of weapons caused one death and one serious injury. The first incident occurred when a lance corporal who had been a problem child pointed a Corpsman’s pistol at the Corpsman’s face in a “hey, look at me” scenario, and then negligently shot him in the head. That Marine was sentenced to several years in prison.
After that, the battalion commander wanted weapons unloaded inside the compound and Condition 3 on guard towers (magazine inserted, no round in the chamber). In another “Look at me,” moment, another lance corporal pointed an M16 at yet another LCpl. A round had been chambered in the rifle and the Marine was shot in the neck. Magically (I’ve seen the scars), the bullet passed between the trachea and the arteries and exited the neck directly over the spine without hitting a nerve. The doctor said it was medically impossible.
I concur with the idea that weapon safety is a mindset. I think our least common denominator training and treating the troops like idiots at the rifle range causes them to either be afraid of weapons or be cavalier about them. As a result, there are NDs. In Special Operations Forces, the mindset is very, very different and NDs are incredibly rare. Pointing weapons at each other is not tolerated and there is a ton of pride in one’s ability to masterfully handle the tools of our trade.
We were required to carry concealed pistols from time to time overseas. In order to practice, we asked the base commander in NC to allow us to carry concealed in garrison. We may as well asked if we could wear pink pants have purple mohawks. The base CO (a colonel from supply who had the lowest weapons qualification in both rifle and pistol) said we could not carry on base because it was a force protection issue. The MPs would not know if we were armed. We know that policemen have loaded weapons 100 percent of the time they are working for their entire careers. For Marines and Soldiers, it is almost zero while in garrison. A mechanic goes to the rifle range at most once a year and there he is told in lockstep fashion to load, shoot and unload. That same mechanic is expected to carry a rifle and ammo everywhere he goes while in Iraq. Infantrymen spend a lot of time in the field carrying empty weapons but total hours of carrying loaded weapons into offices, chow halls, public places = zero while in garrison.
Billy Birdzell served eight years in the Marine Corps, was a platoon commander during OIF I and II and a team leader in MARSOC. He is now pursuing an MBA at the University of Virginia.