News: Negligent discharges: How they affect service members
Story by Sgt. James Wilt
by Sgt. Jim Wilt
Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs Office
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Smoke billowed from the Humvee after several bullets struck it. Paratroopers, who were in a school near where the Humvee was parked, quickly moved to the source of the small-arms fire.
The unit was ambushed and not by the Taliban.
A young Soldier was apparently discussing the operation of an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon when the weapon fired, disabling the truck.
Negligent discharges, such as the example above, have become a common occurrence in Afghanistan. The results of some of the discharges have done more than damaged equipment.
"Some people like to call it an accidental discharge," said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Henderson, the Combined Joint Task Force – 82 Safety director. "But a weapon doesn't accidentally fire by itself. There is negligence somewhere."
Since January 2007, there have been 126 reported negligent discharges in the Operation Enduring Freedom area of operation resulting in the deaths of three people and the injuring of 11 people.
"How do you explain that to a parent?" asked Army Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick Brooks, the 82nd Airborne Division Special Troops Battalion command sergeant major.
"It's fratricide," he said.
"For someone to get injured or hurt from a negligent discharge is something sad to tell a parent after the child is over here deployed to defend their country," Brooks added.
A negligent discharge can injure or kill someone. Therefore, a service member who has a negligent discharge can face punishment for their action.
"They can be charged with a crime punishable under the [Uniform Code of Military Justice,]" said Army Capt. Brendan Gilbert, a CJTF-82 trial counsel.
Following an investigation, the service member's commander determines whether punitive action is necessary and, if so, what the punishment will be, Gilbert said.
"He has the right to do anything from corrective training to an Article 15 ... to a summary court-martial to a general court-martial," he said.
Service members can also receive a written reprimand, which could be placed in their permanent file. Gilbert said this can have a lasting effect on a person's career by negatively affecting one's competitiveness for promotions.
While one possible response to a negligent discharge can be corrective training, Soldiers can face penalties of up to three months confinement and forfeiture of two-thirds pay for three months, according to the UCMJ, under Article 134.
If there are aggravating circumstances involved in the incident, such as injury to another party or the discharge places a mission at risk, service members can find themselves in even more trouble.
"If a Soldier is found to be grossly negligent, not just simply negligent, depending on what happened, the Soldier could be charged with other offenses," Gilbert said.
CJTF-82 has launched a campaign to curb the number of negligent discharges in Afghanistan.
"In March, Command Sergeant Major [Thomas] Capel directed everyone in CJTF-82 to train on proper clearing procedures," Henderson said. He also noted the task force is taking other initiatives to prevent negligent discharges by running stories on the radio, television and in unit newsletters.
It appears, despite a consistent number of negligent discharges per month, the push for weapons safety is having an effect.
One example is CJTF-82 conducting safety check points on a bi-monthly basis for vehicular safety and weapon safety here. The random checks began in February and service members had an 85 percent failure rate for properly conducting safe weapon clearing. Since then, Henderson said service members have turned it around and now boast an 85 percent pass rate.
"It all boils down like everything else; it goes down to the first line supervisor," Henderson said.
"Everybody has a sergeant, even Major General [David] Rodriguez has a sergeant," Henderson said referring to Capel.
"It is incumbent on that sergeant that everyone is trained on clearing procedures," he added.
"Combined Joint Task Force-82 standards tell us anytime you clear a weapon you must be supervised. If a supervisor is there during a weapons clearing procedure, you will not have a negligent discharge," Brooks said.
Regulations regarding the safe clearing of weapons can be found in the CJTF-82 Basic Standards Book, as well as, instructions for properly clearing weapons used by U.S. service members.
"If we do the number one thing Combined Joint Task Force-82 says to do, have a supervisor there, you will not have a negligent discharge because now you have two people clearing the weapon, two sets of eyes on that weapon," Brooks said.
The CJTF-82 General Order # 1 and the CJTF-82 Basic Standards Book also dictates when service members can chamber a round in their weapon.
"A round doesn't go into the chamber when you are on the [forward operating base,"] said Brooks. "There is no round chambered on the FOB! The only time a round is chambered is when you go out of a FOB and the leader of that convoy gives the key words 'lock and load weapons'"
Brooks said there isn't a need to keep rounds chambered in weapons on the FOB.
"The atmosphere really doesn't put us in a position to walk around with loaded weapons," he said. "Yes, there is a magazine in your weapon, but the weapon is not locked and loaded. If a Soldier was to get into any type of trouble, he will have enough time to lock and load that weapon."
The battalion command sergeant major also noted safety reasons for not locking and loading.
"You don't want to keep a weapon loaded because when you go into a DFAC or into a PX someone could accidentally go from safe to fire and accidentally hurt someone," he said.
Both Henderson and Brooks believe the end to negligent discharges begins with leaders.
"It is a leader's responsibility," Brooks said.
A negligent discharge can injure or kill another person, damage equipment or place a mission in danger. They can also result in legal action against a service member. By properly understanding weapon clearing procedures and adhering to standards, service members can eliminate negligent discharges.