Poor choices lead to death of four Airmen

  • Published
  • By Landy C. Schwiesow
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
A choice was made. A series of events preceded and followed that choice. It happened to be the wrong choice. In the process, since the choice had been made, a life ended. A soul was lost. What went wrong? What could have been done to prevent this from happening? As time goes by, each person, each soul, is beset with many choices to make in one's life not always sure of what consequences are to follow. Common sense might be that one should know what consequences are likely to occur. 

Approximately 90 Offutt Airmen attended a fatality briefing at the Dougherty Conference Center here May 19 concerning four recent fatalities. The video teleconference led by Air Combat Command provided an opportunity for discussion with leaders of those four Airmen who died. 

Offutt Airmen were packed into three VTC/teleconferencing rooms at the center to see and hear first-hand what happens in the aftermath of such tragedies. Prior to the start of the conference, Airmen were looking around and making small talk. As ACC started the conference, they became silent and began to listen intently. Lt. Col. Chris Canada, 55th Wing director of staff, came into one of the rooms. The Airmen "may find a common theme," Colonel Canada said and that may help others find answers to what was about to be discussed. 

The common theme, at first, seemed to be motorcycle fatalities, which in the end accounted for three of the four deaths. The thing that stood out as being "common" was that these weren't seemingly troubled Airmen. They were bright, young, eager, and hopeful. They were Airmen full of promise with their whole lives ahead of them. They looked like many of the Airmen who were attending this conference. Each was vital to the mission. Each loss left commanders and coworkers and family and friends with more questions than answers. These were all too common. 

As the first fatality, a motorcycle (sport bike) accident, was detailed, the Airmen became more attentive, listening to factors that may have led to the death of the young Airman. The first had not made safe choices. Fatigue may have been involved as he had a second job that his unit was not aware of. The second was an experienced motorcycle rider but alcohol was involved. The third was a novice who chose not to don his helmet at the worst time and speeding was involved. The last was in an automobile involving several excessive factors. His blood alcohol was more than three times the legal limit and he was speeding at two times the legal speed limit at 140 miles per hour. 

All briefers, leaders in the affected units, recalled contributing factors, their degree of contact with the individuals, and interaction between their section supervisors, NCOICs, and first line supervisors. All recalled briefing safety at commander's calls or talking to the Airmen. They preached training and training and more training. Motorcycle safety training, follow-up motorcycle safety training, speed bike safety training, night-time motorcycle safety training. 

They talked of mentorship and making sure that all who expressed interest in motorcycles received the proper training and that everyone was comfortable with the mentorship received before going out on the open road by one's self.
In this day of extreme sports and high energy drinks, one might be looking for that exhilaration, that adrenaline rush. He spoke of the risks that one takes in exchange for that rush of adrenaline. They might be "rolling the dice for testosterone," said Major General Mike Worden, Air Combat Command vice commander. 

In so many words, graphic scenes, reality TV, and violent video games have become a part of the norm and using the scare tactics that once worked are now less effective, said General Mike Worden. People have become "fairly calloused." Some way we have to "personalize it" to get through to the Airmen. 

He seemed angry and rightfully so. "This is not my problem. It is our problem," he said. "[We have to] lead our way through it" and "hold our young staff sergeants to a higher level" in communicating and leading their troops. 

Colonel John N.T. Shanahan, 55th Wing commander, made it a point to go to each room of Airmen following the VTC and speak to them. He let them know that he was once in their shoes and understood, but wanted to assure them that this is not something to take lightly. "It's a deadly serious business," said Colonel Shanahan. 

Someone also talked of the "Airmen's Integrity" as in the Airmen must not only be good Wingmen but also take on personal responsibility for their own actions. Most Airmen would agree with that. 

"I think it was received well, more Airmen should attend these kinds of events. Although it would great if we did not have to have this kind of meeting," said Staff Sergeant Adam Lee, an aircraft ground equipment craftsman with the 55th Maintenance Squadron. "I felt the experience for Airmen was eye opening, being able to hear what happens after there is a fatality." 

"While the "wingman" concept is talked-up a lot, I believe more strongly in personal responsibility. Poor decisions cannot be blamed on a group, trio, or pair. We are still accountable for our own actions," said Staff Sergeant "Jay" Jacobs, also an AGE craftsman with the 55th MXS. 

What takeaways did the Airmen get from this? 

"The most important lesson is that we need each and every Airman. We want each Airman to see how much effort and thought leadership expends on protecting them. Finally, we want each and every Airman to realize even one bad decision can be fatal and to think about situations before they are encountered," said Major John O'Neill, 55th Wing chief of safety.