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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 20, 2003

Misuse of grenades is pervasive Armywide

 •  Graphic (opens in new window): How a grenade operates

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

In his 20 years with the Hawai'i Army National Guard, Nathan Hee threw about 10 live grenades in training and close to 100 practice ones.

Soldiers in the field would commonly bend the split ends of the safety pin — a cotter pin through the top of the grenade — so that they were flush against the side of the explosive.

With just two thin strips of metal standing between safe handling and detonation, it was an extra bit of confidence.

"Any branch, if it gets caught on the cotter pin (ring), is going to pull the handle and release the striker," said Hee, a Honolulu police officer.

"If that pin would be accidentally pulled out, you are going to die," Hee said. "You have basically about four seconds to get the thing off of you."

The retired Army Guard lieutenant never heard of a pin accidentally being pulled, but, "you see one person doing it (bending the pins), and it catches on."

An Army investigation into a fatal grenade training accident last April 14 at Schofield Barracks found that bending grenade pins to make them "safer" for cross-country movement appears to occur Armywide.

But the report also concludes it's a mistaken conviction that may have contributed to the death of Spc. David G. Rubic, and can cause other hazards with grenades.

The 22-year-old soldier, taking part in a night trench-clearing exercise, was on his back above a dugout, wearing night-vision goggles and clutching an M67 fragmentation grenade to his chest.

The investigation reported that when he lifted his arm to throw the grenade it exploded, causing massive injuries.

Three other soldiers from the 3rd Brigade's 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment were injured, including the battalion and Company A commanders.

Rubic had thrown nine live grenades and 27 practice grenades before, the Army said.

Col. Raymond Mason, commander of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) Support Command, said in his report the "most likely" explanation was that Rubic "milked" the grenade, or loosened his grip on the safety lever.

According to the Army, if the safety lever is allowed to rise 37.5 degrees after the safety clip and pin have been removed, it's possible the striker can rotate and start the delay fuse while the grenade still is being held.

Grenades should have the safety pin ends either in a diamond-shaped crimp, or with a 45- to 60-degree spread, the Army said.

When the pins are bent back flush against the sides of a grenade in a T shape, it "requires a more rigorous pull and could cause a soldier to loosen his grip on the grenade, thereby lessening pressure or control on the safety lever," Mason said.

"The pins being bent back on Specialist Rubic's grenade could have contributed to his fingers or thumb moving up on the grenade as he pulled the pin," Mason said.

Additionally, Mason said, it appears that "milking" could occur without a soldier's knowledge, especially with night-vision goggles on and the grenade held at chest level.

Mason noted that according to Army field and technical manuals, the pins on a grenade should not be tampered with.

One soldier said in the report that, "personally, if handed a grenade without the pins flush (against the body of the grenade), I probably would bend them flush for cross-country movement. I have never been taught to do this, but I have been taught to ensure that a grenade cannot catch on anything ... (I) have never worked with grenades whose pins were not already pushed back."

Mason said the statement lends credence to the opinion held by many soldiers of the unit that pins should be bent back.

As a result of the accident, the 25th Division put in place a new grenade training policy that re-emphasizes safe handling and highlights the dangers of "milking" and bending grenade pins.

Family members of Rubic in San Diego, however, said they don't believe the "milking" theory and are considering legal action.

Mason found that the second most likely cause for the accident was a defectively premature fuse.

Although the Army said the incidence of short fuses is "extremely low," 2,800 grenades from Schofield and Tooele Army Depot in Utah with the same fuse lot as the one used by Rubic were removed for tests, inspections and X-rays.

Results of the tests are expected this spring, said a spokesman for the U.S. Army Joint Munitions Command in Rock Island, Ill.

Retired Army Guardsman Hee said throwing a live grenade gets the blood pumping.

"It's exhilarating and exciting, and it makes you nervous," he said. "There are all those types of emotions at the same time knowing you have a destructive device in your hands that's going to produce some devastation once you put it out there."

Carrying them in the field produces its own anxiety, and that's why many soldiers improvise and bend the safety pins even more.

During an April 2, 2002 squad live-fire exercise by the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, a soldier had difficulty pulling the safety pin on a grenade, Mason noted.

He finally did so and threw the device into a bunker, but it did not explode.

One soldier reported he was told the safety pin broke, and the pull ring came loose, but the cotter pin stayed in the grenade. Explosive ordnance specialists later detonated it in place.

Mason said it was possible the pins were bent back, and that contributed to the problem.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.