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Army shields troops from themselves

The Baltimore Sun

Any time Army Spc. Bruce Bentley leaves Fort Meade to see his wife and children in Lancaster, Pa., he sits at his computer and types in dozens of facts about his trip, including where he's going, what he's driving, how many times he's stopping, and when he's leaving and returning.

The computer program, called TRIPS, then assigns Bentley's journey a risk level, displays stories of soldiers who died on similar ones and recommends ways to reduce the danger.

Soldiers such as Bentley have logged on to the internal Army Web site more than 2 million times as part of a far-reaching campaign to curb the number of service members dying in road crashes. The risks are greatest for soldiers returning from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where lawless driving tactics are necessary. Similar techniques can be lethal on American roads.

"Part of the problem is that they come back and buy fast cars and fast motorcycles," said Kevin Larson, a spokesman for Fort Stewart, which spent $300,000 opening a nightclub on the Georgia post in November after seven soldiers there died in alcohol- related crashes in one year.

Returning soldiers want to "feel the adrenaline" and satisfy "an almost physical hunger to live life on the edge," said Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist and author who specializes in treating veterans.

"If you want to survive ambushes or IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in the theater, I'm told that the way to do that is, No. 1, to drive as fast as you can, and, No. 2, to drive down the middle of the road because you don't know which side of the road the attack is coming from," Shay said. Upon return to the United States, "it's a setup for death."

Last month, Fort Stewart began ordering soldiers returning from combat not to drive for one week as part of a new Army program that helps them readjust to society.

"For six to seven days, they're being bused everywhere they need to go on post," Larson said. "During that time, we're going to make sure that they know how to drive safely and give them time to get their insurance in order."

Early indications show that driver safety courses and TRIPS, which became mandatory for all Army personnel in July 2005 and for all U.S. armed forces in April, have slightly subdued some soldiers' post-combat feelings of invincibility.

In the past, the Army's regimented culture kept them safer than their civilian counterparts. That is still true, but safety instructor David W. Backert of Bel Air repeatedly reminded a class of military police at Fort Meade that they're more likely to die in some type of accident than in combat.

"And they're not all freak accidents," said Backert, 54, a Vietnam veteran and Army contractor who teaches the mandatory driving safety courses around the world. "They're people making poor decisions."

Since 2003, when the war in Iraq began, nearly 600 soldiers have died back home in privately owned cars or motorcycles, according to Army data. The numbers do not include deactivated members of the Reserves or National Guard, or soldiers who recently have left the service.

"Any time we lose a soldier to an accident, we are losing combat power in the Army," said Lt. Col. Laura Loftus, who leads the driving task force at the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.

In May 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld set a goal of reducing military accidents by 50 percent before October 2005. When that goal was not met, the Army announced a new short-term goal of a 20 percent reduction from October 2005 to September.

Base commanders across the country are pushing "carrot-and-stick" solutions to meet the goal.

Soldiers at Fort Stewart and Fort Campbell, Ky., get a day off every time the base goes 100 days without someone dying in a car crash. A sign at Fort Campbell flashes different colors based on how long it's been since a death.

"I can tell you exactly that we've gone 201 days without a soldier or civilian employee dying in a crash, and the whole base could tell you that because the day count is posted on new electronic message boards at every gate to the fort," Larson said in a recent interview.

Fort Stewart is home to the Army's 25,000-member 3rd Infantry Division, which is on its record third deployment to Iraq.

Since the interview, however, two Fort Stewart soldiers have died after speeding back from a weekend at Tybee Island, Ga., and crashing into a utility pole.

In March, Airman Jonathan "Regis" Berin Pierre, 21, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who was assigned to the Air Force's 70th Intelligence Wing at Fort Meade, was speeding on Route 32 in Anne Arundel County on his motorcycle, lost control and died, according to the Air Force Office of Special Investigation.

His mother, Michelle Woolley of Hollywood, Fla., said he bought the motorcycle less than two months before.

The free-wheeling lifestyle is so ingrained that several soldiers said they had told little lies on their TRIPS forms to get their leave approved, such as reporting that they'd take a break from driving every two hours.

Sgt. Jesse Greene, 23, recently drove with his wife from Fort Meade to Alabama to visit friends and back in four days. He compared the TRIPS process to baby-sitting.

"It's an absolute waste," Greene said. "I'm a grown man."

Staff Sgt. Kelvin Gibbs of Baltimore said: "I'm 36, and it's the same thing. I've already driven everywhere I'm going to drive."

Sgt. 1st Class Richard Forrest recently took motorcycle training at Fort Meade because classes at his post, Fort Belvoir in Virginia, were full. He said that TRIPS is an "extra eye," giving him a "better look" at what his subordinates are doing.

"They have to put it on paper," Forrest said. "And if they say they're going to Alabama but get in an accident in Ohio, they're going to be in a world of hurt."

At most military installations, personnel traveling more than 150 miles off post must complete the online program, though base commanders can require it for shorter trips.

During safety classes, several soldiers said the TRIPS system was easy to rig, but Steven Shaffery of the 241st Military Police Detachment at Fort Meade told the class, "Still, it makes you think."

To ensure a low risk rating, soldiers have to understand what behaviors make their trips safer.

The program recently asked Bentley, 33, who performs administrative duties for battalion commanders at Fort Meade, how much sleep he would have before departing, whether he would drive during the day or night, use two-lane roads or highways, drink alcohol the night before, wear a seat belt, check the weather or make frequent stops.

The system also forces soldiers to read descriptions of fatal accidents. If Bentley were to have clicked through that page too quickly, the program would have sent him back, he said.

"You can't go around it," he said. "It forces you to go step by step through your trip."

In addition, Fort Meade requires motorcyclists who want to drive on post to complete two days of classes and to always wear a helmet and other protective gear, including long sleeves and boots that cover the ankles.

Security guards at the gates frequently turn around motorcyclists who aren't properly attired, which soldiers refer to as "jacking them up," said Jennifer Downing, a post spokeswoman.

Soldiers younger than 26 also are required to take a 2 1/2 -hour intermediate driver safety class, and anyone who wants to drive on post is required to take a 30-minute local hazards course, which involves a review of Maryland traffic laws.

The longer class features a short video clip of a crying mother and father who lost their son, who had recently returned from combat, in a car crash.

"You don't want that to be your mom," Backert told the class.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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