European edition, Thursday, June 21, 2007

HEIDELBERG, Germany — The Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq — two times. Some of the world’s worst trouble spots had the chance to bring harm to Sgt. Maj. William Matlock. They didn’t lay a glove on him.

But two weeks ago, just days before heading back to the U.S., the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal was killed while riding his new motorcycle on a road near Heidelberg. He was 43, a tanker by training, an avid amateur athlete, father of two and the operations sergeant major for V Corps Special Troops Battalion.

At a memorial service Wednesday at Patrick Henry Village chapel, Matlock, who’d enlisted in the Army in 1987, was remembered as the epitome of a senior noncommissioned officer. He took no shortcuts, his friends and commander said, loved PT, spoke his mind, cared about his soldiers — and was also very, very funny.

“When he talked, people listened,” Master Sgt. Edmundo Carlos said at the service. “When he laughed, they did, too. When he cried, they cried.”

Carlos, the V Corps logistics sergeant major, said he’d met Matlock two years ago, shortly after Matlock had arrived. He wanted to go to an armored battalion in Vilseck but found himself in a headquarters unit instead.

“Instantly, we became friends,” Carlos, who served as one of Matlock’s pallbearers, told some 300 soldiers gathered in the chapel. “He always had a joke, and the way he looked at a person ... was special.”

Carlos had played softball with Matlock earlier on June 6, the day Matlock lost control of his motorcycle, ran off the road between Leimen and Gaiberg and hit a traffic sign at about 8 p.m. He was declared dead at the scene.

V Corps public affairs officials said they did not know the cause of the crash, which was being investigated by German and U.S. authorities.

“The most shocking thing — he was a very safe guy,” Carlos said after the service. “He would never drink and drive. It was a total no-no for him.”

Carlos said Matlock was an experienced rider but had bought the motorcycle just a month before he was killed. “It tells you it can happen to anyone,” Carlos said.

“Sometimes we take life for granted,” Carlos said at the service. “So I’m begging you to please take care in everything you do.”

Stats show increase in deaths of older riders

Sgt. Maj. William Matlock’s death came three days before a 46-year-old retired lieutenant colonel based in Rome was also killed in a motorcycle crash. Both were part of a grisly trend identified in the past few years by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and public health officials: In a steady increase in the U.S. of motorcycle fatalities since 1997, the largest increase has been among riders 40 and older riding more powerful motorcycles.

NHTSA data show that in 2005, 47 percent of motorcycle riders killed in crashes in the U.S. were 40 years old or more, compared with 25 percent 10 years earlier.

The reasons behind the trend aren’t fully known. But there are millions more motorcycles on the roads and helmet use has decreased as mandatory helmet laws were repealed. Since 1980 the median age of riders has gone from 24 to 38 as baby boomers have aged, and older people are less likely to recover from injuries than younger ones.

Additionally, the average size of motorcycle engines went from 769 cubic centimeters in 1990 to 959 cubic centimeters a decade later, and a majority of motorcycles involved in a fatal crash had a larger engine.

According to the NHTSA, half of fatalities from motorcycles involved in a single-vehicle crash relate to problems negotiating a curve. More than 80 percent occur off the roadway (a crash occurring on the shoulder, median, roadside), almost 60 percent occur at night and collisions with fixed objects are a significant factor in more than half of such fatal crashes.

How U.S. Army Europe trends compare with the U.S. isn’t clear. But according to USAREUR officials, motorcycle crashes causing injury or death increased from four in 2003 to nine in 2006. Fatalities went from two in 2003 to four in 2005 and three the next year.

“Our losses are consistent with the Armywide trend and show that POV (privately owned vehicle) accidents remain the greatest threat to our soldiers,” U.S. Army Europe commander, Gen. David McKiernan, wrote in a March memo posted on the USAREUR Web site. “Of the 13 USAREUR fatalities last year, eight involved a POV or motorcycle.”

— Nancy Montgomery

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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