In the Blink of an Eye

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Joseph D. Langan
  • Eglin AFB, Fla.
August 8th at Eglin AFB began like most other summer mornings in Florida ... hot and getting hotter. I found myself going through my normal routine, walking around the hangar and prepping for the morning production meeting. On our way over to the squadron conference room, my flight chief and I discussed a variety of mundane issues. Between us, we didn't have a single brain cell devoted to anything outside of the ordinary.

All that changed in the blink of an eye. During the meeting, our First Sergeant barged into the conference room and told us that one of our NCOs had been in an accident on his way to work. We immediately left the meeting and rode with the Shirt down to the scene of the accident, barely a half-mile outside the gate. It took very little imagination to assess what we saw, and even less to realize that our Airman was in serious trouble. The frame of his motorcycle was contorted so badly that it more closely resembled a modern art sculpture. A white Buick was parked awkwardly in the grass, its left front wheel and axle completely sheared off.

An elderly woman had turned left from a side street and her vision was partially blocked. Our NCO was traveling at ~45mph in the left lane and was unable to avoid the car that suddenly appeared in front of him. He struck the fender of the vehicle and was catapulted off the motorcycle, finally coming to rest nearly 75 feet from the point of impact.

We contacted his wife and we all headed towards the hospital. Arriving an hour later, we learned just how grave his injuries were - a shattered pelvis and severely broken leg and arm as well as severe internal bleeding. The lead surgeon took on a grave tone, telling us that his family should be called to his bedside as soon as possible.

We spent the rest of the day waiting through multiple surgeries; later on, we learned that on two occasions he had to be resuscitated. Finally, after many days of intense observation and several more surgeries, the internal bleeding was stopped and his bones were set.

The massive blood loss he suffered was counteracted by an amazing show of support from Eglin personnel during a short-notice blood donation drive organized specifically for his purpose. We and his family took turns in the waiting room for upwards of 2 weeks until he was finally discharged from the ICU and allowed to begin the very, very long road to recovery. The medical staff told us often that had he not been wearing PPE, he would have had zero chance of survival.

After going through a scenario that no supervisor ever wants to encounter (which is nothing compared to what he and his family experienced), I took several lessons from the ordeal:

1. No one can deny that riding a motorcycle is inherently riskier than driving by other means. Our NCO was riding with all his PPE, in daylight, in dry conditions, within the speed limit, and had been riding most of his adult life. Despite all of this, no amount of experience can defeat physics ... when the other driver doesn't see you, you're at their mercy.

2. Emergencies, by definition, occur with little or no warning. Everyone should have emergency documentation with them at all times. This includes insurance cards, ID, spouse and family contact info, and (especially important) a living will or some other surrogate care document.

3. Leadership must carefully address corrective actions resulting from a series of traumatic events in order to produce constructive change. Sadly, this was not the only incident involving motorcycles over the summer for Eglin. A few months prior to this event, another 33 FW individual was struck in similar circumstances and was partially paralyzed. In the same time frame, an Army TDY student was killed, and a retired 33 FW maintainer was also involved in a fatal mishap. Our wing leadership reacted swiftly and began sweeping changes to our motorcycle safety program. The focus is education and dialogue, as it should be with all efforts to increase safety awareness. Fire-and-forget shotgun-style blasts of new mandates rarely have any long-term positive effect.

If we were always prepared for emergencies, then they would never happen. The best we can do is to give ourselves the tools to handle a crisis. Individually, that means taking care of ourselves physically and legally. From a leadership perspective, that means instituting policies that are efficient and fostering safety programs that educate and engage, instead of preach.

I implore our motorcycle riders to remember, your overall safety is only partially within your control. We should all be thankful to be part of an organization that will literally spend its own blood to help anyone in need ... when preparedness fails, our Wingmen will be there.
(This article first appeared in Combat Edge, March/April 2009)