Holding the live round in his right hand, Joe repeatedly struck it against the pin… until it went off. Fortunately no one was struck by the round itself, but the force of the escaping gasses destroyed the Soldier’s right hand, as shown in the picture.
My first thought upon reading about this act was, “where were this guy’s NCOs?” Who thought it would be a good idea to use a live round as a hammer? Isn’t a .50 by definition a crew served weapon? Where was the rest of the crew? Did no one else around him recognize this probably wasn’t a good idea, and try to stop him?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and for purposes of this article, they’re not important. “What” and “where” and “how” don’t matter nearly as much as “why.”
Even in highly disciplined units, dumb shit can happen due to complacency, inexperience, fatigue, or any number of other factors. To prevent this, leaders have to be present, they have to be involved, and above all, they have to be experienced and effective enough to 1) recognize dumb shit when they see it; 2)not do dumb shit themselves, and 3)be able to stop dumb shit when they see it.
Like I said earlier, I wasn’t present when this incident with the “.50 round hammer” happened, and there could have been all kinds of extenuating circumstances. But a leader SHOULD have been there. A simple “STOP!! WTF are you doing, Private?” might have prevented this Soldier from suffering a permanent disability, one that he won’t even get a Purple Heart for.
If you want to see the Safetygram for yourself, either to learn more about it or to make sure I’m not feeding you a line of bull, here you go. The Safetygram for this incident listed lack of leader supervision and lack of following proper procedures as contributing to this accident. I believe that is completely accurate; most catastrophic failures like this usually involve failures from both Joe and his leaders.
There is a distinct difference between being hands-on and being a micromanager. People often confuse the two. Hands-on leadership doesn’t mean doing the jobs personally, but it does mean being personally present to ensure the job is done right, and that no shenanigans are taking place.
In some units, and under some circumstances, hands-off is an effective approach. But generally speaking, Joe does well only those things that the boss checks. Trust, but verify. Empower, but monitor. Delegate, but supervise. Bottom line: Army leadership is a hands-on business.
You can’t get your hands on a problem if they are elsewhere. Especially if one of them just got blown off.
*In a military context, the term “headspace and timing” usually refers to a portion of the steps that must be taken to ensure a .50 caliber machine gun is in proper working order. “Operator headspace and timing” is an Army colloquialism that means the same thing as “operator error.”
Scott Faith is a veteran of a half-dozen combat deployments and has served in several different Special Operations units over the course of his Army career. Scott’s writing focuses largely on veterans’ issues, but he is also a big proponent of Constitutional rights and has a deep interest in politics. He often allows other veterans who request anonymity to publish their work under his byline. Scott welcomes story ideas and feedback on his articles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.