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'Disturbing trend' seen in negligent discharges of weapons in Afghanistan

By JON R. ANDERSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 5, 2004

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — In the past 18 months, troops in Afghanistan have accidentally killed themselves or others at least six times and wounded nearly two dozen more troops through unsafe weapons handling, according to Army statistics released to Stars and Stripes.

In what military officials call negligent discharges, last year troops mistakenly fired their weapons 24 times in Afghanistan, injuring 18 and killing four.

So far this year, five troops have been wounded and two more have been killed in 16 accidental discharges.

In the same time frame, 24 troops have died from combat-related injuries in Afghanistan.

The top enlisted solider in Afghanistan called the staccato of accidental firings a “disturbing trend” and took leaders to task recently for failing to enforce basic standards to prevent the mistakes.

“Insufficient training, ineffective supervision, negligence, inattentiveness and outright indiscipline are all contributing factors,” Command Sgt. Maj. Cynthia Pritchett wrote in a recent column for the military’s weekly newsletter in Afghanistan.

Pritchett penned the column after seeing six negligent discharges in her Kabul headquarters over the past two months.

Although no one was injured in any of those accidents, Lance Cpl. Russell White wasn’t so lucky.

Assigned to 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, White was the most recent fatality in Afghanistan when a fellow Marine mistakenly shot him in the head with a 9 mm pistol on June 20.

Spc. Jason Perkins knows he — or one his buddies — narrowly escaped becoming the next fatality.

A 22-year-old combat engineer with the Louisiana National Guard, Perkins shot himself in the foot with his M16 rifle July 6 at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.

Perkins’ rifle was on safe, but when his weapon caught on part of his uniform the bolt slammed forward, chambering a round and discharging.

“I feel pretty stupid,” said Perkins, who’s still recovering at Kandahar. “I’m just so glad I shot myself and not someone else.”

Perkins did two things wrong, according to standard safety regulations: He left the bolt pulled back, and he should have paid attention to where the weapon was pointing.

Those are two of many things soldiers, and their leaders, need to pay attention to, wrote Pritchett. “Muzzle control, selector switch operations and fire disciple are critical to weapon safety. Whenever you see a safety violation, correct it. A moment’s inattention can lead to disaster.”

The statistics in Afghanistan do not include suicides and friendly-fire incidents such as the one that left former professional football star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman dead after a firefight in April.

Instead, negligent discharges could more appropriately be dubbed “forgetful fire.”

“Very few of these incidents happen due to a malfunction of the weapon itself; it is almost always due to negligent actions of the operator, or improper or inadequate training and supervision,” said Lt. Col. Susan Meisner, U.S. forces spokeswoman in Afghanistan.

Although Army safety officials prefer the term “accidental discharge,” most leaders use “negligent discharge,” said Meisner, “to drive home the point.”

She said that of the weapons mistakes in Afghanistan, about half have occurred while troops were clearing their weapons into clearing barrels. But during all the mistakes, she said, “proper clearing procedures were not followed.”

Leaders attribute the high rate of negligent discharges in Afghanistan to lack of basic awareness, she said.

“Soldiers aren’t accustomed to carrying loaded weapons, and high turnover in theater requires constant training and reminders,” she said.

Despite the fatalities and injuries, so far no troops in Afghanistan have faced criminal charges, officials said.

Instead, most have been handed letters of reprimand or nonjudicial Article 15 punishments, which include reductions in rank and fines, but do not remain on permanent records.

Although she said that military investigators have not determined “criminally culpable intent for a negligent-homicide charge” in any of the fatalities, White’s death remains under investigation.


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