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"Mess up, Move up"...

This was the military meme for many years concerning officers and even higher ranking enlisted.  Basically, someone messes up, they get promoted and moved to another assignment.

There are many incidents that never saw the light of day, much less press, where this saying was proven to be true.  I should know, I saw it first-hand, when I was stationed at Incirlik AB, Turkey.

Meet me after the fold...

Prior to 1991, Air Force Regulation gave overseas Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units the authority to do fireworks displays for the bases.  An investigation into an incident that occurred during my tour led to the regulation being totally rewritten.   By 1993, the regulation was changed and only contractors certified in fireworks usage and displays were authorized to put on displays for the bases.  So, what happened?

We received the fireworks from Italy, complete with instructions written in Italian.  Now, for those not familiar with commercial fireworks that are used, they are round, and come in different sizes.  The instructions give the size of the tubes needed to fire the fireworks into the air.  The fireworks work on a mortar principle, meaning that there must be a "gas seal" between the fireworks and the tube so that when the propellant charge fires, it shoots the ball high into the air.  Have you ever taken coke cans, taped them together, put a tennis-ball into it and used lighter fluid to shoot the ball?  Same thing - bigger scale.

We took the instructions to the engineers to get the tubes.  Unfortunately, they only had tubes that were "close" to the size we needed.  At this point, let me say, I had never done a fireworks display before, so, I was going on what I was "told" by other, "more experienced" technicians.

It took us about 3 days to dig the holes for the tubes, and on the morning of July 4th, we laid out the fireworks.  Once all of the fireworks were laid out, we set them down into the tubes.  This is where the problems started.  I reached down, took one of the balls, and was able to manipulate it back and forth inside the tube, ie, no gas seal.

I called over a TSgt, an E-6, who had been certified in Florida in fireworks.  "Hey Ketch... come here", I said calling him over.  I showed him the tube, the ball, and asked, "I've never done this before, but, these things work on the mortar-effect, right?"  He said they did.  "We have a problem then", I told him, as I manipulated the ball again as he watched, "no gas seal, these things will never get any height and will explode right above the ground."  He nodded, "you're right."

We both called over a MSgt, an E-7.  We said, "Sergeant, we have a show-stopper here", and we showed him why, again manipulating the ball in the tube.  He looked, then we went tube to tube.  Every ball was able to be manipulated, ie, had no gas seal.  The MSgt agreed that this was indeed a show-stopper, that the balls would get no height.  The three of us went to the ranking enlisted, the E-8.

The three of us told the E-8 that we had a show-stopper, that the fireworks tubes were the wrong size and that the balls wouldn't get the height needed.  Now, you'd think three techs saying the operation was too dangerous would be enough, right?  Wrong.  We were told by the E-8 that the operation would go as planned.

When we got back to the unit, I entered the E-8's office.  I told him flat out that people would get hurt.  He flat told me that the operation would go as planned.  I asked him flat out if he was going to order me to be at the fireworks display.  He told me it was "recommended" I be there.  I told him unless he was giving me an order, I would not be there, it was too dangerous and he was going to get people hurt.  With that, I walked out.  For the rest of the day, I told everyone in the unit what was going to happen when they set off those fireworks; they would get no height and detonate above the ground.  They didn't listen.  You ask why not?  The E-8 ruled the unit like a little Hitler.  Anyone who didn't follow him had their careers ruined.

At the end of the duty day, we all left and I ended up at the base bar.  Around 10 o'clock or so, someone walked into the bar and I overheard the person talking about the display.  It had indeed gone bad.  The fireworks did indeed detonate right above the ground, people had been fragged by the phosphorous and had been taken to the base hospital.  I went immediately to the emergency room where I found four of my friends in trauma.

The Air Force investigated the matter, but, by the time they got around to it, I had already left the unit.  I was never contacted by any investigator at any time.  I heard the results of the investigation through another technician.  So, what did the investigation conclude?

The investigation cleared the E-8 of any responsibility and placed blame on the E-6 for the incident.  The E-8 was promoted to E-9, Chief Master Sergeant, and was reassigned to headquarters USAFE (United States Air Forces Europe).  And as for me?  I heard that the E-8 tried to have me court-martialed after I left the unit but the Squadron Commander stepped in on my behalf and stopped the paperwork.

People wonder how General Kiley became Surgeon General of the Army after Walter Reed?  If you mess up, you move up, and if you tell the truth, you get the shaft.  That was the military way.

Originally posted to MotleyPatriot on Tue Mar 27, 2007 at 04:15 PM PDT.

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