DuoDuce over at The Daily Spork had a best friend, Paul Varner. Paul was in the National Guard, and was about to deploy to Afghanistan. DuoDuce told Paul that he was going to blog about the deployment, make him and his unit famous.
That was what was supposed to happen. Instead, Pvt. Paul Varner of the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, was killed in training during a live fire exercise. Here is the story.
Pvt. Varner was a patriot who died for his country. But I think a lot of people don't understand how something like this can have happened, and so I would like to take a moment to talk about friendly fire and training deaths in the military.
A lot of what our military does is insanely dangerous, even when nobody is shooting at them, and combined arms live fire exercises are right at the top of the list. You have troops on the ground shooting at a target with direct fire weapons . They are spread out and camouflaged, so it is tough to know where they are by just looking. Some of them are probably pretty close to the target.
Then you have the artillery, an indirect fire weapon, shooting at the same target. The artillery is located several miles away from the target, and the guys manning the tubes can't see where the target is, or where the friendlies are. Instead, a Forward Observer with the front-line troops gives coordinates to a Fire Direction Center. The FDC performs (hopefully accurate) mathematical calculations based on the known position of the guns (we hope) and the known position of the target (likewise) and then directs the folks on the gunline where to point the guns and what charge to use.
Then you have the close air support. An attack aircraft traveling at the speed of heat probably can't see where the friendlies are, and the pilot probably can't get a good enough look at the target to know whether there are friendlies close by. He is relying on the Forward Air Controller, and is going to drop where the FAC tells him to drop. So lets hope that the FAC can read a map. Moreover, if the attack aircraft comes in at 20 knots too slow (easy enough to do), the bombs are going to be way short. So lets hope the FAC has enough sense to give the attack aircraft a restrictive attack heading so a short drop won't risk friendlies. And when the fast movers are attacking the same target as the artillery, add in the whole separate problem of how to keep the artillery from fragging the aircraft.
To make matters more difficult, the troops on the ground are probably moving around. If they aren't accurately reporting their position, they can get killed even if everyone else involved in the exercise is doing everything perfectly. Ever been lost before? During a live fire exercise it can get you killed in a real hurry. And, of course, if the folks at the Fire Support Coordination Center aren't accurately receiving and plotting the locations of all these folks, well, the chances to screw up go on and on.
All this is done in a matter of seconds, often by kids right out of high school, many of whom are tired and hungry and stressed out. Most of the people involved can't see each other and many of them can't even talk to each other (for example there is usually no direct communication between the artillery and the attack pilot, even though they are shooting at the same target). And even small, not-very-significant mistakes mean that the bombs or shells or bullets hit in a different place than was intended, which sometimes leads to friendly people being hit.
So what do you do? Well, you can not have combined arms live fire training, for one thing. But that will just mean more lives lost in combat, when you have to work with combined arms while getting shot at. So you train your people as good as you can before they go out, and hope for the best.
I guess that this is just a long way of saying that I don't see Pvt. Varner's death as being a "senseless mistake." There was probably a mistake or two made in the process, but if you are going to do this type of training--and you have to--then people are going to get hurt on a fairly regular basis.
So when I lost friends in training accidents I never viewed their deaths as pointless. I thought that they were men who were purposely doing dangerous things because their country needed men willing to do dangerous things. Just as Paul Varner was putting himself in very real harm, because his country required it, and who died a hero's death for his country.