I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my day. I did a lot of stupid things in service to the Army. At or near the topic of the list involves the time when I was a lieutenant, of course, and I was tasked to go into a minefield and recover 5,000 gallon field truck that rolled over onto its side there.
We like to joke about minefields. They make for good drama. They are fantastic visuals, in movies, on TV – we just saw one on Doctor Who. But I’m not sure people really understand just how amazingly barbaric mines are, how wholly uncaring a mine is, in who it attacks, in whether it kills or maims. Governments, armies, militias, rebels – people love to put down mines, because they are cheap, easy to install, and absolutely serve as a deterrent, but nobody wants to go back and remove them afterwards. Which is why we have this cultural reference to people finding themselves standing in the middle of an old, abandoned minefield. Minefields aren’t a joke.
In 1996, I was a second lieutenant, the executive officer for B Company, 299th Forward Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. The Brigade had been sent in to Bosnia-Herzegovina to replace all of the 1st Armored Division, which had been there for a year, and President Clinton had promised that all of those Soldiers would be home by Christmas (we learned later that he was not, in any way, talking about us.) As the XO, I should have been focused on making life easier for my Commander, largely focused on the personnel he has operating at Forward Area Support Teams located all around the country, but once we got into Bosnia, lo, things changed – I became a convoy commander.
I did not train with the unit, as it prepared to go to Bosnia. I was doing things like being threatened with Court Martial, over a Barbie doll. They had all gone through some months of getting ready to go, and the Brigade plan, and the Battalion plan, the Company plan had all been for the Noncommissioned Officers – the Sergeants – to conduct all of the convoys. Yet somehow, when we got into Bosnia, at least in our Battalion, our Battalion Commander had a change of heart – convoys would have an officer leading them, if not, then a warrant officer, and only under extremely rare occasion would it be a senior NCO leading a convoy. Suddenly, I was on the road all the time.
So, no shit, there I was, enjoying some much need down time in our base camp, not out on the road, when my company commander sent for me to tell me that there was a 5000 gallon fuel truck that had rolled off the side of the road, that we needed to go recover.
Here’s the quick thinking I did. My own company did not have any 5000 gallon fuel trucks, so this wasn’t an organic, internal mission. When one of your own trucks has problems, you use your own wrecker to go get your own equipment; every unit, with their own motor pool, has at least a 5-ton wrecker. But a 5000 gallon fuel truck and trailer, I understood, would not but fun to do with just a 5-ton wrecker, and our Service & Recovery section (S&R) had bigger ones. Harumph.
I headed down to our battalion operations center to get the detail. It wasn’t something I wanted to hear. “I need you to go into this minefield…” and then blah blah blah. I really tuned him out after that.
“Can we go back to the minefield part?”
Our sister company, which did logistics and bulk fuel, had been doing a big fuel resupply run to another base. They’d made a wrong turn – it happens – and in doing so, and with 5000 gallon fuel trucks, all 18 wheels of them, they’d tried to head down what can only be described as a jetty, instead of losing time by heading farther down the main, paved road until they found someplace appropriate to turn around their 18-wheelers. It really was a tiny road, not suited for 18 wheelers.
And yes, while trying to drive 18-wheelers across a dirt-packed jetty, in between fields, one of them very quickly slid right off the side of it, driving right out into the field, onto their side.
A field, clearly marked as being a minefield. Which they realized after the driver walked back to the road.
With a couple of HMMWVs and an M984 HEMTT wrecker, we went to the scene. I am glad this wasn’t the era of Instagram. I wasn’t given any instruction on what to do once I got there, other than to recover the personnel and the equipment. It was implied that we couldn’t spill fuel or petroleum products, minefield or not. The convoy commander on the scene when we arrived, basically stood back and out of the way and wanted nothing to do with trying to fix this.
The wrecker crew I had was all about it, though. The E5 was a former Marine, with two Purple Hearts – he’s been shot in the leg with a shotgun, and taken an AK round in the chest, both during operations in the Middle East – and no sooner had we arrived than he was at my side, sizing up the risks. “We can do this, sir,” as he explained how he wanted to use the boom to be lowered over onto the truck, to rig it with tables, so they could lift the cab and then the trailer straight up. Straight up – no additional movement, least risk for mine detonation.
And that’s what we did. It took a few hours. I got dirty; my usual “what do you need me to do” offered was accepted. It was a long afternoon but we went home to our own base for food and showers that night.
I tell people this story for one of two reasons.
1. No one told me how to get the mission done, once I got there. My higher headquarters could point to a map and tell me where the problem was, but they were wholly reliant on me to get there, make an assessment, and get ‘er done. I didn’t have a cell phone with which to call back, we were well outside of radio range, and besides, no one would have wanted me to come back with a detailed proposal and decision briefing, asking for the OK to do what I had decided needed to be done. They wanted the 5000 gallon fuel truck extracted from the minefield, safely, and all of the equipment and personnel to continue on their way. That is organization leadership, from above. That is understanding leadership, at my level. And in using and trusting my own team in the process, it is practicing leadership.
2. This is a story about assessing and accepting risk. It illustrates it well. There is no way to wholly mitigate the risks of going into a minefield, to extracts a 5000 gallon fuel truck. I understood that. But I did everything I could to first understand the risks, and then mitigate them as much a possible, but in the end, I needed to get them to what i considered to be both as low a level and an acceptable level, before I could just start putting people back into a situation that involved bulk fuel and explosives of unknown age and condition. Life is like that, and leadership is like that – and being a leader in the military teaches, through doctrine but especially through practice, this act and science of assessing and accepting risk.