Survivors of war take fatal risks on roads- article

Discussion in 'Home Defense/Guns' started by Jenn, May 3, 2005.

  1. Jenn

    Jenn Well-Known Member Supporter

    Nov 9, 2004
    Survivors of war take fatal risks on roads
    By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
    LAKE JACKSON, Texas — Just three days home from the war in Iraq, Army Spc. Robert Tipp Jr., couldn't wait to open the throttle on his knobby-tired ATV. This accident killed Iraq war veteran Vincent Withers and another driver outside Fort Bragg, N.C. in June of 2004.

    "It was like he was in prison for a year, and the bird's free," Gail Tipp says of her only son, who returned in late March. "He was riding that four-wheeler as hard as he could."

    Tipp's father, Robert Sr., agrees: "He thought that nothing could hurt him now."

    There were no roadside bombs along that winding stretch of lane in this Gulf Coast town. Just a freedom that Tipp hadn't tasted for more than a year — and a sharp curve that he and his speeding ATV couldn't handle.

    When he smashed, without a helmet, into the pavement on the evening of March 26, Robert Jr. — the 20-year-old his mother still called "Scooter" — suffered massive head injuries. He died hours later, on Easter morning.

    Soldiers, many just back from the war, are being killed in vehicle accidents at a pace that has the Army alarmed. The fear is that soldiers' safe return from combat has left many feeling just as Tipp did: invincible. As a consequence, they drive too fast, sometimes under the influence of alcohol, and lose control of their cars, their trucks, their motorcycles or ATVs.

    "We absolutely have a problem," says J.T. Coleman, spokesman for the Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker in Alabama, which is tracking the trend. "The kids come back and they want to live life to its fullest, to its wildest. They get a little bit of time to let their hair down, and they let their hair all the way down and do everything to excess. They drink to excess. They eat to excess. They party to excess."

    And then, some drive.

    The statistics underscore the problem. From October 2003 to September 2004, when troops first returned in large numbers from Iraq, 132 soldiers died in vehicle accidents — a 28% jump from the previous 12 months. Two-thirds of them were veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan.

    The deaths continue. In the past seven months, 80 soldiers died in vehicle accidents — a 23% increase from the same period a year earlier. Four out of five were veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The numbers could be higher, but the statistics, tracked by Army safety officials at the Readiness Center, don't include soldiers who recently left the service, or those with the Army Reserve or National Guard who have just been deactivated.

    The Marine Corps faces a similar problem. Three years ago, its rate of fatal vehicle accidents was almost double what the Army's is today. The rate dropped after the Marines added an eight-hour driving course to boot camp, but that drop flattened out when the Iraq war began.

    Today, the Marine rate remains somewhat higher than the Army's. But the Army's rate is surging, and because the Army is much larger than the Marine Corps, it loses almost three times as many people to vehicle accidents.

    Usually safer drivers

    The Army's rate also is troubling because, before the war, soldiers appeared to be safer drivers than civilians. Compared with other young adults, soldiers have more disciplined and regulated lifestyles. All are employed, and many are married and have children — factors that encourage responsible behavior. In fact, despite the surge, the Army's rate of vehicle-accident deaths — almost 20 per 100,000 this year — remains just below where the overall U.S. rate has stood for the past few years — about 22 per 100,000.

    "Having said that, this is where we lose most of our people" in non-combat deaths, says Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith, commander of the Readiness Center. "And we're putting our resources on that."

    Army and law enforcement officials are particularly concerned about the months ahead. Summer has traditionally been the most lethal season. In Fayetteville, N.C., just outside Fort Bragg, police Lt. Richard Bryant warns, "When warmer weather comes, we're going to see a big increase."

    Fort Bragg, home to the war-hardened 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces troops, saw vehicle accident deaths among soldiers based there rise from four in 2002 to six in 2003 to 10 last year.

    Among them was Vincent Withers, 27 and a veteran of Iraq. Behind the wheel of a borrowed Pontiac Trans Am last June, police say, he told a passenger at a stop light just outside Fort Bragg: "Let's see what this thing can do before we hit the top of the hill."

    The Trans Am reached 90 mph before Withers swerved to avoid another car, hit the median and launched the Trans Am into an oncoming car, police say. Withers and the driver of the other car, a father of two, were killed.

    'Nothing can touch me'

    Smith, the Readiness Center commander, says the Army is moving aggressively to cut the death rate and to better understand the reasons behind it.

    During the past year, the center has created a computer program in which soldiers fill out forms detailing personal travel plans. The program identifies travel risks, such as late-night driving, and allows supervisors to review plans and advise GIs on how to travel more safely. Other programs include an advanced-driver course for soldiers and a safe-driving ad campaign.

    In recent weeks, Smith also has enlisted epidemiologists to investigate a link between the effects of war and stateside traffic fatalities. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who works with the Army on ways to reduce psychological damage from war, says combat has altered the behavior of soldiers home from Iraq, just as it did with Vietnam veterans.

    Some return home, Shay says, with an air of invincibility. " 'I'm 20 years old. I've lived through firefights. Nothing can touch me,' " he says of their attitudes. "They feel like they have to live life on the edge, or it is too bland or colorless." Others "actively seek out danger." In the extreme, Shay says, that behavior becomes suicidal.

    The life of Army Staff Sgt. David Rutledge Jr., 31, was in turmoil when he died Feb. 28 near Fort Drum, N.Y., where he was based. A veteran of Afghanistan, Rutledge was in the midst of a bitter divorce. His girlfriend was pregnant, and he faced the prospect of missing the child's birth because he was being sent to Iraq.

    At the time of his death, Rutledge also was having episodes of paranoia and was taking antidepressant medication, says Detective Steven Cote of the Jefferson County (N.Y.) Sheriff's Department.

    The night that he died, Rutledge couldn't get cash from an ATM or at two convenience stores. He jumped into his girlfriend's SUV and sped out of town at nearly 90 mph, Cote says. Moments later, he plowed into a parking lot full of new cars. He died instantly.

    "He didn't lose control," Cote says. "He just went right straight through." (cont)
  2. Jenn

    Jenn Well-Known Member Supporter

    Nov 9, 2004
    Grim details

    On a recent Sunday morning in Killeen, Texas, near the Army post at Fort Hood, Greg Anderson, an investigator with the Killeen Police Department, recites details about the latest traffic death of a soldier.

    Staff Sgt. Brian Foster, 24, an Iraq war veteran, had crashed his motorcycle into a cedar bush along Westcliff Road around 4:30 that morning. He wasn't wearing a helmet. Foster is one of 12 soldiers from Fort Hood killed in vehicle accidents this year — and the second to die during that second weekend of April.

    On a city map, Anderson traces from memory the courses of other fatal motorcycle accidents. Each ended horrifically, with a soldier catapulting himself into a car or onto the pavement.

    "Had one down here on this end of Westcliff," Anderson says. "He was going too fast to make this turn, hit the curb, was launched off the bike right into a car — head first, no helmet. Had another soldier coming north on WS Young (Drive) ... witnesses told us in excess of 130 mph when he hit the back end of a car."

    Anderson grimly predicts a record year for traffic deaths in Killeen.

    To caution soldiers, the Army erected billboards outside each Fort Hood entrance and displays car wrecks to underscore the message. On the billboards, lights flash red or amber if a soldier has died in an accident, or green if there's been no death in 30 days. Green lights haven't flashed since January.

    Hooked on speed

    Fort Hood, the Army's largest post, is home to the 4th Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions. For the first time since the war in Iraq began, both divisions are back in town at the same time. Streets are clogged with gleaming new Ford Mustangs and Chevy Silverado pickups, and a profusion of high-speed racing bikes that soldiers call "crotch-rockets."

    "We're selling out," says Mike Clark, sales manager for Texas Motor Sports in Killeen, where hot items are the Yamaha YZF-R1 and YZF-R6 racing bikes. With muscular fairings and tiny windshields, the bikes go from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds and top out at about 160 mph. "They want something that goes fast and keeps that high up they had during the war," Clark says of the soldiers.

    Along congested Rancier Avenue, soldiers pop wheelies or weave through traffic. On outlying roadways, some race.

    One Sunday afternoon, as bikers congregate at Longbranch Park, Staff Sgt. Anthony Stewart roars up on a racing bike. He wears no helmet, a violation of Army regulations. Just weeks home from Iraq, Stewart, 31, shrugs. Sometimes he wears it. Sometimes he doesn't, he says. "You're not going to predict an accident," he reasons. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

    Nearby, members of a racing bike club, Chaos Ridaz, gather around a picnic table. Most are soldiers who have served overseas. Many are older, non-commissioned officers who try to mentor young GIs about driving responsibly. But even these veterans concede that speed fills some indescribable urge for excitement that they've felt since returning from war.

    "The war changes you," says Staff Sgt. Gregory Dickerson, 31, club president and a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division, which will return to Iraq later this year. "Every day I was in Iraq, I had a chance of dying — 365 days. Now, when I make it home ... you want to live."

    Going fast, he says with a grin, is like "a drug — the newest crack out there." 'Casualty of war'

    From the Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Smith worries that the Army may not be able to stem the tide in traffic deaths by itself. It needs families and spouses to curb the reckless behavior of returning soldiers.

    That's why the center is producing commercials in which friends and families talk graphically about what they could have done to save their loved ones.

    In Lake Jackson, Gail and Robert Tipp do that every day. They are convinced that their son's time in Iraq contributed to his death — and that he died in service to his country, just like any of the more than 1,500 who have died in Iraq. Gail calls him a "casualty of war."

    Gail Tipp, 49, a retired school bus driver, relives every moment of those last days with her son. "It was like he couldn't harness the energy he had," Gail says. "Everything was now. There was no waiting."

    Robert Tipp, 51, a chemical plant operator, torments himself for not stopping his son from riding the ATV.

    "Follow your instincts," he says. "If you've got a feeling that they're living too fast a lifestyle, even if it makes them mad, ****es them off, slow 'em down." The alternative — losing someone so quickly after a happy homecoming from war — is unbearable, he says.

    Tipp remembers how he wept after seeing his son off to war. "He strapped that M-16 on his shoulder and he marched off. He looked like he was 10 years old.

    "I thought, 'Nothing can be harder than this,' " the father recalls. "Boy, was I wrong."