The Top Killer of Soldiers, Army Vehicle Deaths Are Tied to Poor Training, Though Numbers Down

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Fatal ground vehicle accidents during Army training are down, but top brass warn that they're still the top risk to soldiers.

Twenty soldiers died during on-duty incidents during fiscal 2021, which ended Sept. 30, according to an upcoming safety report from the service's Combat Readiness Center. The center showed Military.com an early draft of the report under the condition that the full document not be published in advance of its release later this month.

Nine deaths occurred on the ground in separate mishaps; there were also 11 deaths in three separate aviation crashes. That's four less than in 2020, when training came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, and six less than in 2019, though aircraft flew 90,000 fewer hours this year compared to before the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the Army is concerned about the continued pace of casualties tied to accidents.

"Ground vehicle mishaps are the number one killer of our soldiers," Brig. Gen. Andrew Hilmes, commander of the Army's Combat Readiness Center and director of Army safety, told Military.com in an interview.

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While leaders attribute the decline in fatal incidents to a greater emphasis on safety, the Army is still on track to lose an average of almost two soldiers per month to on-duty vehicle incidents -- a number that far outpaces most years of combat fatalities over the last decade. In October, just after the start of fiscal 2022 and not included in the draft report, Pfc. Patrick Hernandez, 30, died at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in an incident involving a Humvee on a major road. Four other soldiers were hospitalized.

Hilmes said when he took on studying vehicle incidents he expected the fatalities to occur during complex combat training, at night, while weapons were being fired. But instead of chaotic environments, most fatal vehicle accidents take place with just one or two vehicles during relatively safe conditions.

He attributes some of that disparity to leaders putting in time to be extra careful when terrain is rough and there are a lot of moving parts involved, but becoming complacent during otherwise inconsequential movements from Point A to Point B.

"I thought it would be tracked vehicles, medium risks, but what we saw is that it's roadbound. It involves slow movements," Hilmes said.

The report found that the bulk of fatal ground incidents occur in the Defense Department's third quarter, which is April through June. For aviation accidents, it's the fourth quarter -- July through September -- but mostly in August.

Despite the timing, ground incidents aren't necessarily attributed to a spike in training during warmer months. Hilmes said Army investigators found that many leaders were either new or in an acting capacity when incidents happened -- meaning that commanders had just arrived or a platoon sergeant recently moved to another unit and a younger sergeant was standing in temporarily.

Hilmes said new leaders have a lot on their plate when they arrive at a unit. In some cases, those taking charge after a recent promotion might not yet be aware of the full scope of their responsibilities. That makes leadership handoffs some of the most dangerous periods for units, mostly because taking safety measures and ensuring drivers have received proper training can fall through the cracks.

Something else leaders have noticed, which Hilmes said is still under study, is that more soldiers are coming into the Army with no driving experience or civilian driver's license.

"It's a lot of kids are growing up in urban areas and using public transit. We're also seeing more teenagers who simply don't like to drive," he said. But right now, the Army's data mostly points out issues with inadequate driver training and soldiers having to drive while sleep deprived, a finding confirmed by a July report from the Government Accountability Office.

"[Military] licensing classes were often condensed into shorter periods of time than planned with limited drive time, and unit training focused on other priorities rather than driving," the GAO reported.

A lot of the training to certify a soldier to drive a vehicle is ad hoc, and troops are rarely reassessed on their driving ability or given opportunities to build those skills through advanced courses. For other military skills, such as operating heavy weapons mounted to vehicles, training is methodical and certification can take weeks.

"There are a lot of competing time constraints, so [units] expedite the training, so they might not get the full breadth of something like night driver's training, for example," Cary Russell, director of the GAO's Defense Capability and Management team, told Military.com. "Gunners have to go through a series of qualification events that measures proficiency; there's a specific prescription of standards there. The driver has nothing like that."

Yet the data on incidents is incomplete. Potentially, less than 5% of vehicle mishaps are reported, the draft of the Army's study says.

In particular, less severe and chronic injuries go unreported due to safety investigator workloads or commanders not understanding reporting requirements. The bottom line, the report notes, is that any injury to a soldier that causes them to miss days of work or have any duty requirement altered must be reported.

Data often doesn't even include whether the driver was licensed, their experience level or last driving training event. "This problem is so bad in some cases that even the soldier's gender, age and [military occupational specialty] is not reported," the report notes.

When it comes to aviation accidents, the cluster of incidents happens slightly later in the year. Most aviation incidents in 2021 occurred in August as units took advantage of the longer days to fly more. However, incidents are less common during the other summer months, especially July, which Hilmes described as a relatively "dormant" month.

"The month of August is higher, as we near the end of the fiscal year; as units try to execute flight hour programs, we start flying a whole lot," he said. "Some of it is [operations tempo]. But looking deeper, what we realize, [is] the unit went over a leadership change. But it's also pilots rotating in and out."

The volume of so-called Class A incidents, meaning mishaps that result in serious injury, fatalities or destruction of the aircraft, has been relatively flat for several years. In 2021, there were eight Class A mishaps, up from six in 2020, though flight hours are way down due to the pandemic, according to the report. This year, there were 805,838 flight hours recorded, and 789,678 hours flown in 2020 -- much lower than 890,021 flight hours in 2019 and 846,219 in 2018.

In 2019, there were 12 mishaps, and 2018 saw 11 major aircraft incidents.

While on-duty incidents are on the decline, the Army saw a 20% spike in off-duty vehicle crashes, often involving risky behavior such as drunk driving. In 2021, 87 soldiers died in civilian vehicle accidents, compared to 72 in 2020.

"As COVID mitigations relaxed, we saw those numbers go back up," Hilmes said. "Off duty is probably the hardest for us to get after. It's mostly risky behavior; the chain of command is not present. It's typically over the weekend, but first-line supervisors are probably best postured to help us with that."

The figures, especially deadly incidents tied to training, have spurred action in Congress with a number of provisions aimed at vehicle safety, training and investigations in the must-pass 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets funding and policy priorities for the Pentagon.

One set of proposals, from Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., would require the military to implement the GAO's recommendation to better define roles for vehicle commanders and direct the DoD to evaluate the adequacy of military licensing programs and training environments.

"These proposals to improve tactical vehicle safety should significantly reduce the risk of future training accidents," Buchanan said in a statement in September. "However, there is still more to do to ensure no more lives are needlessly lost because of easily preventable military training accidents."

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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