Since the Army released the photos taken moments before the death of Spc. Hilda Clayton and four other Afghan National Army Soldiers on 2 July 2013 in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, news has spread like wildfire about the live-fire exercise that tragically took them too soon. The official statement from the Army simply reports that the mortar tube "accidentally exploded" during the mortar validation exercise, killing all five instantly. This incident eerily reflects a similar tragedy that occurred on March 21, 2013 at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nevada, when a live-fire training exercise killed seven Marines. What leads to these accidents, and how can they be prevented?
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Servicemembers with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment pay their respects March 21, 2013, to Marines killed March 18 during a training exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev. LEO SALINAS/U.S. MARINE CORPS[/caption]In the Hawthorne incident, one mortar was loaded on top of another in the mortar tube, causing both to explode and killing the Marines involved. The official report showed that human error was responsible for this incident, as the Marines had been previously trained on 81mm mortar system and had recently transitioned to the 60mm system. While the former is nearly impossible to double-load through the conventional drop-fire method, it is possible to do so with the latter. Insufficient training, unclear instruction, or a simple mistake or moment of confusion can have devastating consequences.
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Adrian Muehe[/caption]Double-stacked mortars could have been one cause of the explosion in Afghanistan, but faulty ammo could have played a part as well. The Hawthorne incident also resulted in the removal of every mortar from within the lot that the deadly one came from.Anything from bad charges, cracked shells, or a flaw in a fuse could cause a premature detonation of the round, or could produce a "dud." Foreign matter or excess paint on rounds can also cause firing issues. Rounds that no not fire immediately are handled with extreme care, as it is not yet clear if it is a true misfire, a hangfire (a delay in firing ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes), or a "cookoff," when the heat of a weapon could set one or more components of the round off.
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U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Russ G. Boudreau, Marine Rotational Force Europe 17.1 (MRF-E), makes adjustments to a M224 60mm mortar system, in Porsangmoen, Norway, Feb. 28, 2017. The Marines of MRF-E conducted live fire exercises to improve their ability to perform in a cold weather environment. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Sarah N. Petrock)[/caption]After the Hawthorne incident, there was a system-wide stop-use order for all 60mm systems in the Marines, due to the dangers that they posed. For some, this seemed like a blanket overreaction, but for others, it was a necessary step to ensure the safety of other Marines.The 60mm mortar system has a long history in warfare - it was used as far back as World War II. Given that Hawthorne Army Depot functions as both a staging site for older weapons systems and as a hub for munitions transport all over the globe, that was an additional cause for concern as authorities tried to piece together what caused the deaths. While the official statements on the Hawthorne incident said that the 60mm system was the latest model at the time (M224A1), some still speculated on whether our not an older system (the M2) may have been used by mistake.Misfires due to faults in the M224A1 system can come from a variety of places, including but not limited to:
- A defect in the ignition cartridge.
- A damaged, defective, obstructed or loose firing pin.
- Too much oil or water in the bore.
Ultimately, it comes down to the level of attention that both instructors and students give to help prevent the bulk of these accidents, as well as the thorough testing of all rounds and systems before their use. There's no getting around the danger that weaponry and warfare present, nor the fact that service members sign up for these risks when they join the Armed Forces, but with the right preparation, casualties like these are kept to a minimum.