Casualties on the homefront

Serious accidents were on the rise at Fort Hood long before nine soldiers died at a low-water crossing in June

Hours after the last soldier’s body was pulled from a flood-swollen creek, safety investigators from the Army’s Combat Readiness Center were on their way to Fort Hood to investigate.

The June 2 rollover, which killed nine people after a military transport truck flipped while trying to navigate a low water crossing was the deadliest training accident in Fort Hood’s modern history.

But records show it was also the latest in a rising number of accidents — large and small — across the sprawling Army post over the last decade. According to the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, which investigates major accidents and tallies statistics across the Army, the number of reported accidents at Fort Hood reached a 10-year high of 109 in 2015, well above reported numbers from earlier years. Accident numbers have risen at Fort Hood even as the population of active-duty soldiers has fallen by about 20 percent since 2011.

It’s not exactly clear what is causing the uptick at Fort Hood, though officials say accident rates are pegged largely to the rhythm of wartime deployments and training schedules. Officials also point to better online reporting since 2011. More recent years have also seen a rash of hospital-related accidents.

Since 2010, the three highest classes of accidents — those involving serious injury, death or significant equipment damage — increased nearly 20 percent in 2015, from 42 to 50.

Accidents at Fort Hood have resulted in 23 deaths of soldiers and Army employees since 2006; in the same time frame, eight amputations have been reported.

The mishaps listed in the investigators’ reports range from the horrific to the routine. For example, in October 2013, a soldier was struck by lightning while observing a platoon during a live-fire exercise, suffering burns that left him with “total disability.” Two weeks later, a soldier was taken to the emergency room after stumbling on a road reflector while running, injuring an ankle and a knee.

Safety officials also tally the equipment and personnel cost of accidents, a number that rose significantly in 2015. Accidents caused $7.8 million in damage — more than the previous eight years combined — with the bulk of the increased cost attributed to fires in tanks and fighting vehicles, according to accident data.

The reports also reveal more than 30 accidental needle sticks suffered by medical personnel in 2014 and 2015 at Fort Hood’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center and various clinics on the post. Medical officials, who have encouraged better reporting in recent years, say they have launched an educational program to remind staff of safety protocols and say the incidence of needle sticks is decreasing.

It is difficult to pin down exact reasons for Fort Hood’s increase in accidents because no single entity oversees all the units on the massive Army post. Most units fall under the post’s III Corps Command Group, which has reported numbers that indicate decreases in accidents in 2015. But those statistics don’t include data from the hospital, related clinics and the many U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard units that train on Fort Hood.

“Accidents on Fort Hood can be affected by the operational tempo and home station population of our soldiers,” III Corps officials said in a statement. “The cycle of deployments and redeployments since 2003 has directly affected the training population and frequency at Fort Hood.”

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, has pointed to accident rates across the military, particularly among aviation units in the Navy, Marine Corps and Army as evidence of the impact of budget cuts on training capabilities.

Regardless of the severity of accidents, Army officials seek to learn lessons from them, said Lt. Col. Phillip G. Jenison, head of the Ground Directorate at the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center: “There’s an assessment stage — is it an isolated incident or something we need to (make part) of the training?”

Major Gen. John Uberti, Fort Hood deputy commander, center, speaks to the media on June 3, after nine soldiers were killed in a training accident.Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez\/American-Statesman

Major Gen. John Uberti, Fort Hood deputy commander, center, speaks to the media on June 3, after nine soldiers were killed in a training accident.
Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman

Fatal crash prompts changes

The 2.5-ton Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, a troop transporter with a walled truck bed, was part of a four-vehicle convoy traveling on a remote section of Fort Hood near Owl Creek when disaster struck. A thunderstorm was dropping historic amounts of rain over Bell County, and records show that Fort Hood had closed a paved road just as the convoy was rumbling along a parallel dirt road. When the vehicle reached the Owl Creek low water crossing it was swept away. It took more than 24 hours to recover the bodies of all nine of those killed.

The accident left a host of unanswered questions: Was the driver warned of impending flood conditions? Did commanders directing the operation understand the dangers posed by the torrential downpour? Why wasn’t the training operation halted when nearby roads were closed?

It might take weeks or months to get solid answers: The Army’s safety investigation has been completed but is undergoing review and a separate command investigation that, unlike the safety investigation, could potentially lead to disciplinary action, is still underway.

But while the Army has revealed few details about the investigations, officials told the American-Statesman that the accident has already led to changes in training procedures.

Fort Hood officials have “augmented existing notification procedures with several new means of notifying units and personnel of adverse weather conditions,” a Fort Hood spokesman said. As an example, Fort Hood said it has begun using a new warning system that federal officials say can more effectively alert the public of hazards through cellphones and other means.

And Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Farnsworth, the director of Army safety and commanding general of the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, is using the Fort Hood incident to “illustrate the hazards associated with water crossings and driver training,” said officials at the center.

“The Army and Fort Hood’s leaders are committed to improving safety while maintaining effective, realistic training,” Fort Hood spokesman Christopher Haug said.

Phillip Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, said Army leaders walk a fine line in assessing the safety concerns of real-life training scenarios. “These risk assessments are supposed to take into account all elements of risk, from soldier fatigue to equipment status to weather, and weigh those risks against the potential benefits to be gained,” he said.

Over the last decade, safety investigations have led to a number of other changes at Fort Hood, including intensive motorcycle training after an uptick in crashes since 2004; reduced speed limits on roads in training ranges after an increase in rollovers; and better reporting procedures for missing soldiers and rules on access to water for soldiers since 2007.

That year a 25-year-old soldier was found dead of dehydration and hyperthermia four days after he disappeared during a solo training exercise testing map-reading and navigation skills.

Armywide, accident investigations have led to other improvements, such as restraint systems for gunners designed to protect them during vehicle rollovers.

Army helicopters hover above Lake Belton searching for four missing soldiers who were swept away when the transport vehicle they rode in was toppled by floodwaters. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman

Overall, training deaths drop

In general terms, military installations have become safer places to live and train since the Cold War, according to Defense Department data. In 1980, the military suffered 1,556 accidental deaths, or 72 deaths for every 100,000 service members. By 2007, accident-related deaths had fallen to 544, or 34 per 100,000.

The number of people dying during Army training accidents that don’t involve aircraft have similarly fallen in recent years, from 184 in 2011 to 123 in 2015. The rate of the most serious ground-based accidents is also down Armywide. “The Army has taken huge steps in the last decade or so in risk management,” Jenison of the safety center said.

One exception is Class C accidents, those that cause less than $500,000 in property damage and don’t cause permanent disability, which rose 22 percent from 2013 to 2015.

Another area that has alarmed lawmakers is an uptick in aviation accidents across the military.

While aviation accidents overall at Fort Hood aren’t increasing, four soldiers were killed last year when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a routine training exercise on the post.

At a May Senate hearing, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who previously commanded Fort Hood, said the increase in major aviation accidents “has our attention.”

Army Spc. Max Adams, foreground, provides security during a live-fire training exercise at Fort Hood on June 12. Adams is an infantryman assigned to the Mississippi Army National Guard's Company B, 1st Battalion, 155th Infantry Regiment.
Mississippi Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann

Boots and bandages

Most of the more than 600 Fort Hood-based accidents detailed in the Army Combat Readiness data illustrate the dangers associated with working and training at what has long been one of the military’s busiest deployment hubs for war-bound service members. Injury reports detail everything from catastrophic crashes to the sprains and fractures associated with physical activity.

Many of the most serious accidents at Fort Hood involved Army ground vehicles. In June 2015, a Texas Army National Guard soldier from San Antonio was killed and two soldiers injured when their vehicle overturned while driving on a range road during training. Two years earlier, a soldier was killed when the door of his Humvee was jolted opened and he fell out while driving on a trail to a training site.

In 2007, a soldier was killed while putting a shipping decal on an Abrams fighting vehicle when it suddenly lurched forward and pinned him against another vehicle.

Weapons-related accidents left numerous soldiers with severe injuries. In 2012, a soldier was preparing a machine gun for range firing when the bolt released and caught his gloved finger in the receiver, resulting in the amputation of part of his index finger.

Dozens of accidents were related to physical training, many involving heat-related injuries. Two soldiers died from heat stroke or exhaustion during runs or marches. In 2007, 50 soldiers were unable to complete a June road march; six were hospitalized with heat-related injuries.

Civilian employees of the Department of the Army have also suffered fatal accidents at Fort Hood. Within a five-month period in 2010, three civilian workers were killed in unrelated accidents: One was killed when a forklift he was repairing fell off a jack and pinned him to the ground; a second was killed when he was knocked out of a lift bucket while repairing a communications cable; and a third was electrocuted while working on a malfunctioning flagpole light.

Many of the accidents that resulted in the highest equipment damage occurred on tanks and other fighting vehicles. Last year, a fire broke out when a crew was clearing the weapon system of a Bradley fighting vehicle, doing $2 million in damage. Five months later, an Abrams tank caught fire during a training exercise, causing more than $1 million in damage. Other accidents were more run-of-the-mill: In 2012, a soldier caused $5,629 worth of damage to an Army vehicle when he fell asleep and drove into trees while conducting security checks.

By far the most expensive accident in Fort Hood’s modern history occurred in 2005, when flatbed rail cars carrying 11 tanks bound for Iraq broke loose and slid into a stationary locomotive, doing more than $23 million in damage.

Safety investigators say they are learning of more Class C, D and E accidents, which cause less severe injuries or less equipment damage than accidents in the two highest categories, as reporting from individual units has improved. Units are now able to report such accidents with an online tool rather than submitting hard copies. “It’s significantly improved our reporting,” said Bill Zaharis, the Army’s director of hazard management. “The culture of safety in the Army is embedded in everything we do."

Soldiers fire an M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzer during live-fire training at Fort Hood on June 8.
Mississippi Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann

TITLE IMAGE: Department of the Army Civilian Safety Specialists collect initial information at the scene of a vehicle accident at Fort Hood.
Photo courtesy of III Corps Safety office, Fort Hood Public Affairs.