JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq --
The diminishing presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is a tangible indication of the improvements in the security situation. Hostile incidents in Al Anbar province have been at historic lows since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Unfortunately, it has also shed light on the nonhostile and preventable incidents afflicting units across the branches of the military serving here.
In early May, an article published by the Boston Globe stated that between September 2008 and April 2009, 72 troops died from non-combat related incidents, while 67 were linked to enemy actions; it was the first extended period of OIF that insurgents did not cause the greatest threat. It has become an issue of concern that unit commanders work toward mitigating every day, both in the U.S. and while deployed.
In January of this year there were two tactical vehicle accidents within the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward). In both cases, fatigue was listed as a contributing factor. It was the driving force behind Maj. Robert J. Gallagher’s decision to go on a road show across Al Anbar to provide specialized training to the subordinate units of the MLG (Fwd) in hopes of initiating a deterrent to prevent future accidents.
Gallagher, who is the air officer for 2nd MLG (Fwd) and a trained F/A-18 Hornet pilot, has used the stringent preparations taken by pilots before takeoff and has applied them to the operators of ground convoys running missions throughout Al Anbar.
The training Gallagher provided was the same brief he received when he attended the Aviation Safety Officer’s School in Pensacola, Fla. The course is designed to prepare aviation safety officers to assist commanders and commanding officers in conducting aggressive mishap prevention programs. It focuses on how the brain works with respect to regulating bodily functions and the importance of getting the adequate amount of rest, according to Gallagher.
“Both driving and flying requires that you not only have training, but that you be physically prepared to safely operate [the vehicle or aircraft],” he said.
During the course, the students learned that without the proper amount of sleep, someone’s decision-making abilities fall in line with someone who has consumed a significant amount of alcohol. For instance, a fatigued individual who has been awake for 16 straight hours is going to make decisions on par with someone with a blood alcohol content of .05, and after 19 hours, it rises to a .08 BAC, which is the maximum legal limit for driving in most U.S. states.
“What I am hoping this training will accomplish is to educate Marines on the importance of getting the proper amount of rest,” said Gallagher.
For 2nd Lt. Marc A. Hunter, a platoon commander with Transportation Support Company, 2nd Supply Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), and convoy commander for a recent five-hour convoy to Joint Base Balad, the training helped provide valuable information to him and his Marines that they will be able to employ on future missions.
“[It] really was beneficial,” Hunter said. “We may not be flying F-18s, but [driving tactical vehicles is still dangerous] and it is important to be alert at all times.”
The 32-vehicle convoy lead by Hunter departed Camp Al Taqaddum the evening of June 21 and arrived at JBB early the next morning. These hours are typically off limits for Marine and sailors to drive when stateside and going on long road trips, but necessary on the roads of Iraq in order to cause the least amount of disruption to the local populace. Aside from the typical challenges of operating vehicles at night, the Marines also face the risks of sporadic small-arms fire and improvised explosive device threats that, while minimal compared to the heightened levels of violence seen in the earlier years of OIF, do add additional risks for the convoys.
“The biggest thing I stress to the Marines is always prepare for the worst and pray for the best, so when the time comes to take action there is no hesitation and everyone knows their role,” Hunter said. “One of the most difficult, but important, parts is clear and concise communication throughout the convoy to keep everyone’s [situational awareness] up and [everyone] acting appropriately.”
In order to ensure his Marines remain focused and ready to act at a moment’s notice when faced with any situation, Hunter ensures his Marines get the full amount of recommended sleep.
“Sleep is definitely important,” Hunter said. “We make sure the Marines get at least eight hours of sleep before convoys.”
Although rest is important for everyone with a contributing role during a convoy, it is even more critical for the drivers. Lance Cpl. Simon J. Lopez, a driver during the convoy to JBB and also a member of TS Co., has been driving tactical vehicles for 11 months, but was able to learn more in-depth how the sleep cycle affects your performance and coordination while performing your job.
Lopez now ensures he gets eight hours of uninterrupted sleep before going on a mission. He understands that getting the right amount of sleep is how you can best prepare for driving long hours, especially at night.
“It makes me a lot more vigilant [when driving during times] with low visibility,” Lopez said.
Since the training was presented to all of the convoy operators of 2nd MLG (Fwd), and commanding officers of the subordinate units made the eight-hour rest plan part of their standard operating procedures, the MLG has had no recorded tactical vehicle accidents to date.