Suspended upside down, Fort Gordon 2nd Lt. Chris Tengler counted to three, unbuckled his seat belt and crashed into the ceiling of the mock Humvee.
“Rollover, rollover, rollover,” the Fort Gordon soldier shouted.
Following the sound of the driver’s voice, the passenger of the 13,000-pound vehicle escaped, and on the outside the survival exercise continued, with Tengler crouching next to a chain-link fence, clutching his machine gun and scanning a field for snipers.
“All right, go to the bleachers,” Tengler’s training instructor said to the soldier, a member of 442nd Signal Battalion. “What could we have done better?”
Twice a month soldiers are asked that question after experiencing the disorienting effects of the Humvee Egress Assistance Trainer, known better in the Army as “HEAT.”
The HEAT stationary vehicle is shaped like the M1114 up-armored Humvee, but with a cylinder going through its frame that allows it to be rotated from side to side and upside down.
The $250,000 model – 53 of which are in operation at Army posts and Marine Corps bases worldwide – was designed by the Defense Department in 2005, after U.S. troops saw a significant increase in fatal Humvee rollover crashes, according to a 2010 report by the American Society of Safety Engineers.
Only 17 fatalities were reported in association with 72 Humvee rollovers in the five years before the global war on terrorism began in 2002, but 90 soldiers were killed and 159 injured in vehicle rollovers during the first two years after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
In 2005, 384 rollovers, which caused 74 fatalities, were reported. During 2006, the numbers dropped to 169 rollovers and 40 fatalities, and by 2007, when HEAT training was mandatory for all deployed soldiers, there were 147 rollovers and 26 fatalities, a 65 percent decrease in rollover deaths compared to two years earlier.
“The bottom line here is to train soldiers how to get out of a Humvee when it rolls over, whether from running into a ditch and flipping, or from being hit by an explosive and tossed into the air,” said Ken Lundy, the branch chief of Fort Gordon Training Aids, Devices, Simulators and Simulations.
Lundy said the program typically trains four soldiers at a time but can accommodate a fifth passenger in the gunners hatch.
During a simulation – which operates at angles, rather than speeds – soldiers are first tilted 25 degrees to right and then 30 degrees to left, before experiencing a 180-degree flip and a 360-degree roll.
After the vehicle comes to a complete stop, soldiers assess the situation, report to the leader and then are taught to place one arm above their head against the roof of the vehicle to brace the weight of their fall, while at the same time reaching across the body with their free arm to unbuckle the seat belt.
The soldiers then must together identify the easiest and quickest means of escape; exit the vehicle; establish security; administer first aid if necessary and take inventory of their supplies, which include a plastic radio and fire extinguisher, and toy machine guns.
“Really, the first task is to gain orientation (when you are upside down),” Lundy said. “An actual rollover happens in seconds and when you are in an upright car you pull up on handles to open doors, but what do you do when the vehicle is upside down? You are not pulling anymore. You are pushing.”
Tengler said Monday’s demonstration was his first and was an “eye-opening experience.”
“I was sitting right next to the door, but I still couldn’t find it,” Tengler said. “I was completely disoriented.”
At the close of the training session, instructors hold an “after-action review” to discuss areas of improvement. If a crew passes, they get certification cards that allow them to train with their own units on the HEAT, using different scenarios and weapons props, Lundy said.
External door locks allow instructors to simulate the obstacles a soldier might face if a door is blocked in a real rollover, Lundy said.
Second Lt. Janelle Runion said that although her unit forgot to secure the fire extinguisher, the practice sharpened her planning skills and gave her a sense of security.
“If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would, unless it was in real life,” she said. “I’ll skip on that.”