With that, we had to get a repeat from the guy on the phone. He was crying. “Wait, what? Say again?”
“We shot him, one of us shot him. During live fire. We just came from the hospital. He’s not gonna make it, man.” Another broken voice joined in, saying the same essential thing.
It was hard to make out what they were saying. They were our two team medics, and they and a third doc from another team had rendered first aid. One also thought he might have fired the fatal shot, but he couldn’t be sure.
“How the *&%&#$(!! did that happen?”
Of course, if anyone understood how Richie got shot, he probably wouldn’t have been shot. Over time it was possible to to wring some details out of the weeping, distraught medics. They had a long drive back from the hospital where Rich was in an ICU with a hugely swollen head and a bad prognosis. Both docs were tough men, one of whom would retire as a team sergeant and one as a first sergeant and acting command sergeant major. Both earned the CIB and CMB before retiring (which you could do, on separate tours, Back In The Day™, although you could only wear one at a time). And both would serve in a “where’s where” of the world’s badlands. But right now, they were probably too emotional to be driving or talking on the phone, but they were doing both because they thought we needed to know. And they needed to talk.
Each detail of the accident scene was worse than the previous one. There was Rich, conscious but brain-damaged, begging them to remove the helmet that was squeezing his head — but his helmet had long since been taken off. There was Rich asking what happened, and marveling at the fact that he had been shot; and then asking the question again minutes later, his damaged brain having fomed no memory of the first conversation. There was the aftermath, where pimply CID privates in polyester PX shirts and pants tried transparent and amateurish “gotcha” interrogation techniques.
Against guys who, first, had nothing to hide, and second, had all had resistance to interrogation training. It would have been comical if it wasn’t for the buddy in the ICU. That took the mirth right out of things.
It turned out the CID guys had built such a towering theory that they were trying to determine which one of the guys was having an affair with Rich’s wife and had conveniently offed him. (It never occurred to them that the men in our unit came from a region 250 miles wide and 500 high, and some of them flew to drill. It was usually impractical to get together with the other guys, let alone to hit on their women, even if we were so inclined).
Paradoxically, our reputation — “SF guys are too well trained to screw up like that” — was one of CID’ most powerful reasons for seeking a criminal explanation.
But, yeah. We screwed up like that.
One powerful feeling was terrible guilt for not being there and not sharing that misery drill with the guys. One problem with being a Reserve or Guard SF guy is that drills will conflict with civilian life. Sometimes drill wins; sometimes you’re a member of a corporate board and have to make the annual meeting. So there was a profound feeling of guilt in the air as the horrifying details of Rich’s wound tumbled out.
Later, Rich’s helmet would be sent back when the 51-3 investigation was over. We signed for it and put it in the company safe. A test coupon had been cut out for analysis, and we could see where the M855 round penetrated the back of his helmet, and how some fragments had peppered the opposite inside after scrambling his brain. Other fragments stayed inside his head. It was a fatal wound; that much was obvious.
To everyone but Rich. He didn’t die.
We never determined conclusively who fired the shot. It was a difficult, night, live-fire evolution where the team had to transition from firing and maneuvering in one direction to react to being ambushed on the flank. The team has to transition and engage the new threat. Rich, a pugnacious Ranger Bat alumnus who prided himself on his fieldcraft, was point as usual. When the team secured from the drill, they were one man short. Someone found Rich and asked him to get up. He didn’t move, so the guy kicked him, thinking he was being a smart ass. Rich mumbled something, and moaned. That’s when it was obvious something had gone drastically wrong.
While it was never clear who fired the shot — not to us, not to the safety investigators, not to the junior G-men of CID who did their best job on an investigation, once they figured out it wasn’t a TV show murder plot — every man on the team was afraid it was him. One member took it particularly hard, and soon left the unit. He drank a lot, a real lot. He died young.
It was Rich who called this time to talk about his friend. “I never talked to him after the accident. I wish I could have. I would have told him it’s OK, I’m OK.”
And considering that he took a lethal round through the brain housing group at point-blank range, Rich is OK. We suppose his MICH helmet helped; maybe the delta-V that came from going through all those Kevlar layers that the test engineers so carefully delaminated to inspect was enough. Maybe it was just the path the round took through his grey matter — brain injuries are weird like that. Maybe God has stuff for him to do — we’re not ruling anything out here.
Sure, he had consequences. He lost some field of vision, he had to learn a lot of motor skills (like walking) all over again. He had to retire, medically, from his civilian job in the law and order field as well as from the unit. His wife left him. Most painfully, he had to sit in a wheelchair and watch his buddies — his old team — go off to war without him. They could have used him, you know.
But when they came back, he had a trick to show them — he came to the homecoming party, and stood up out of the wheelchair. Every man in the unit felt momentarily beatified. We bought him enough drinks, and he bought them for us, that we all needed wheelchairs before we stumbled back to our hotel rooms (nobody was driving that night. Wouldn’t have been wise).
Rich didn’t lose a point off his intelligence, and his personality didn’t shift at all (both common in brain injuries). His sense of humor — another frequent head-wound casualty — was untainted. When we got back from the board meeting, and got in to see him, his first comment was, “well, if a guy on the team had to be shot in the head, it’s lucky it was slow ole Ranger me. A bullet in your head might have hit something! In mine, it just went clean through. Whooosh!”
So, yeah, we’re hard on NDs here. What was going on was an extremely hazardous, advanced evolution that required men to cross in front of other men, at night, under NVGs. But the bottom line is, we blew it — guys that knew our weapons, sights, and NODs, and fire thousands and thousands of rounds a year.
Since this accident is still so imperfectly understood, it’s hard to determine what lessons we can learn from it, specifically. Here are a few:
- We would suggest that you should concentrate 90% of your training time on basics and 10% or less on advanced elements. Work on the few things you always need. A Special Forces team has to do some hairy live fires, but you probably don’t.
- You don’t have to go any further than YouTube to see instructors — often, largely self-taught self-promoters — doing things that are designed to look cool but that add risk without adding training value. Don’t be that guy. SOF do some advanced shooting, but every thing we do is taught painstakingly on the crawl, walk, run basis. Even then, we sometimes blow it. Ask Rich.
- Stress inoculation works. As horrifying as the experience was for all concerned, the many gut checks of SFQC, 300F1 (medic school), and Ranger school meant that when things went pear-shaped, everybody acted. They didn’t freak out until the drive home, after the CID kids finally let them go, and it was OK to freak out.
- Rapid and proper medical action saves lives, even lives thought forfeit. Control the bleeding, maintain the airway. It’s not brain surgery… at least, not unless you do the right things to get him to the operating theater, and then the brain surgeons can take it from there. If you don’t know combat first aid, learn some. And put a med kit in your range bag and your trunk.
And one last thought: you’re not dead, even when both your team medics have mentally written you off, until you give yourself up for dead. (Of course, the docs maintained a positive attitude whilst treating Rich, even as they calculated his odds as nil — fortunately, mistakenly. So he never knew they wrote him off until they talked much later). Rich never quit which is the single most necessary ingredient in coming home with your tab, or trident… or life. Many years later, Rich is doing better than ever.