Two years after deadly training accident, Fort Jackson leadership works to balance safety, readiness

Two years after deadly training accident, Fort Jackson leadership works to balance safety, readiness

FORT JACKSON, S.C. (WIS) - Sunday will mark two years since a Fort Jackson drill sergeant fell asleep at the wheel of a one-ton utility truck he was driving and barreled into a training formation of soldiers, killing two people and injuring six others.

The collision killed Private Timothy Ashcraft and Private Ethan Schrader.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Morrow pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide and one count of dereliction of duty earlier this year. He is currently serving an 18 month sentence in a Charleston military prison.

According to a Fort Jackson official, the Army’s largest training installation has experienced five deaths in the last five years.

Most recently, a trainee died in September after officials suspect he suffered a medical emergency. That case is still under investigation.

In 2016, an on-duty soldier died due to heatstroke after completing a physical fitness test.

The number of U.S. service members dying outside of combat missions is on the rise, according to a congressional report released this year.

The report states that from 2006 to 2018, a total of 16,652 active-duty personnel and mobilized reservists died while serving the United States.

According to the report, 73 percent of the deaths occurred in circumstances unrelated to war. Most notably, nearly 32 percent of active-duty military deaths are the result of accidents.

Suicides make up about 23 percent of the non-combat deaths and illness and/or injury makes up 17.5 percent.

The reasons for training accidents can widely vary, and the numbers for any given year can be swayed by one large single event.

There are approximately 1.3 million active-duty military and another 800,000 reservists in the United States, so the risk of death during a training accident is small.

However, leadership at Fort Jackson said one death is one too many.

“The most dangerous thing we do is train,” Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle said. “What we want the American public to know is not only what we do, but what extent we go to, in order to protect and safeguard the soldiers we train.”

Beagle said all day, every day, leaders at Fort Jackson work to mitigate risks.

For example, during some of the year’s hottest months, heat categories are put in place. If the temperature and humidity rise above a certain level, soldiers are not allowed to run or climb as part of training exercises. If there is lightning within a short distance from Fort Jackson, there are designated safe locations for trainees to wait out the storm. If lightning gets too close, training stops altogether.

Those overseeing the trainees are part of a team that designs and implements a risk assessment plan for each training activity. Dangers and hazards are identified and most often, drill sergeants are on the lookout for anyone who may be injured or suffering from a greater medical problem.

Even with extensive safeguards in place, Beagle admits accidents can still happen -- whether they’re preventable or not.

“Bad things are going to happen to good people, bad things are going to happen to good units, so no matter what you do, there are things that are preventable and not preventable,” he said.

Beagle points to the sheer scale of basic combat training at Fort Jackson. Every year, 45,000 soldiers are trained and more than 24,000 other soldiers graduate from other Fort Jackson schools and courses. Overall, it accounts for 54 percent of all of the Army’s basic combat training and 61 percent of all the female soldiers entering the Army.

“When you look at our scale, the numbers -- more than three other installations combined -- it doesn’t make it any better because one is one too many,” he said. “But when you look at the scale and time period, the numbers are very low. And unfortunately some were preventable and some were not.”

Lt. Col. JD Evans is a battalion commander and helps oversee the trainees who cycle through Fort Jackson every ten weeks. He said there’s a balance between safety and readiness.

“This training is inherently dangerous, but it’s also rigorous because it has to be,” he said. “We make sure that we follow a risk mitigation process from day one because we have to make sure that we preserve that force and make sure they get the best quality training. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it in a safe way.”

Second Lieutenant Brittany Mustybrook has been at Fort Jackson since the spring and said it is communicated to trainees at the beginning of basic combat training to seek help if they are injured. However, they often remind trainees of the difference between being uncomfortable and being injured.

“Trainees don’t necessarily like running, nobody really likes running and you’ll sometimes see them fall to the back,” she said. “That’s normal, you’re hurting, you’re in pain, your legs hurt and you can’t breathe. But that’s one of those things where we’re like, ‘you’re in pain right now but you’re not injured, you’re just uncomfortable.’”

Staff Sgt. Alexia Lewis is a drill sergeant and works closely with trainees. This week, she’s working with a group on their second week of training. While trainees are told to seek medical attention for injuries or health problems, she said it’s a struggle getting them to step forward.

“I see it a lot, the trainees do not want to go because they think it makes them look weak,” she said. “No, it will actually make you look stronger in the end because you got the help you needed without any further repercussions.”

The number of trainees far exceeds the number of drill sergeants at Fort Jackson, which is why the “battle buddy” system is put in place. Each trainee has a buddy that looks after them, ensuring they are eating, sleeping and overall succeeding in their training mission.

“We have eyes on this 24/7, so it is our job to be able to identify something and tell them to take a knee and drink water, or to go get medical attention," Lewis said. "We try to have it on a cycle so it doesn’t get to the point where they’re killing themselves.”

Beagle said in the two years since the installation’s fatal training accident, the subsequent investigation and recommendations have changed procedures to limit the risk of something similar ever happening again.

“We’ve applied those changes across the board in terms of what we do in situations similar to that event,” Beagle said. “Where vehicles are, things we do to reinforce rest cycles, sleep cycles, those types of things. It’s always unfortunate when you have to learn that way. And not that things were done wrong, but they could have been done differently. You have to learn and adapt quickly to prevent something like that from happening again.”

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