Accidents don’t just happen.

The old cliche that they do is a crutch no Soldier can afford to lean on. Things that just happen aren’t your fault. If they just happen no one bears responsibility, no one has a role in prevention.

We all should know that isn’t the case.

It’s all about cause and effect.

Accidents take place when individuals make bad choices. When a driver edges over the speed limit and cuts in and out of traffic in an effort to get home a few minutes faster, that’s a bad choice. When a swimmer bets he can make it across a lake, no matter how cold the water is, that’s a bad choice. When people relax with a few drinks, then head out to operate any sort of powered equipment – a car, a boat, a motorcycle – those are bad choices, too.

When we see the tragic results of those bad decisions, we call them accidents. But, mishaps resulting from choices any thinking person would condemn as unwise represent inevitable percentages, not random chance.

I saw a near miss recently. An annual festival brought hundreds of spectators to the shores of the Dechutes River, in Tumwater, about 20 miles from Fort Lewis. They gathered to watch an annual Duck Derby. Thousands of rubber ducks were dumped from a bridge. The festive throng eagerly crowded the banks of the river to watch the yellow wave make its way through the rapids and down Tumwater Falls.

It happened just below where I stood on the riverside trail. Two young boys – probably 9 or 10 years old – slipped on the rocky bank and slid into the river. They thrashed frantically for a second or two before an adult grabbed their hands and dragged them back onto the shore.

They were lucky. The river, below flood stage, but still swollen with snow melt, was certainly far too dangerous for even a strong and ready swimmer. The Sunday headlines about a happy festival almost turned to tragedy. But that was no accident. The parents of those boys should never have let them climb down on the moss-covered rocks. Bad choices.

For Soldiers, now, the consequences of bad decisions are even more serious. We are an Army at war. Our units need all their members to prepare for the battlefield and succeed on their missions. A loss because of injury or death in a mishap at home station leaves just as big a hole in a unit’s manning as does a battlefield casualty.

Far too many Soldiers are making those bad decisions. So far in 2008 across the Army more than 100 off-duty accidents have taken the lives of 98 Soldiers. While on-duty accident rates are dropping, off-duty rates continue to climb. That is simply unacceptable.

In a real sense, Soldiers who make poor decisions that place them at unnecessary risk are being disloyal to their units and to the other Soldiers with whom they serve. Taking a foolish risk, for a brief thrill or out of a momentary fit of temper is not the act of a disciplined team member. It is selfishly placing other Soldiers at risk in future combat.

Accidents don’t just happen. But the consequences of bad individual decisions today can ripple through the lives of those we care about for years to come.

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