MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Fifty stars and 13 stripes were carefully folded and a single bugle somberly bellowed “Taps” across the Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery in Springfield, Pa. A Marine handed the nation’s colors, folded in to a neat triangle, to Christina Formosa. As she clutched it tight to her chest, she placed her hand among the red, white and yellow flowers, atop the coffin of her husband, Master Gunnery Sgt. Nick Formosa, and after 28 years of marriage, she bid her final farewell to the love of her life and a Marine whose life was taken too soon.
Formosa ran the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer aboard the Combat Center, which aided in the safety of Marines conducting convoys while deployed to combat zones in the Middle East, and was developing its program of instruction, when his life was tragically ended by a man whom he had never met.
While riding his motor cycle down Highway 62, July 27, 2007, a man, who was high on methamphetamine, veered his pickup truck across three lanes and struck Formosa. In an instant, a man who dedicated his life to his family and to the Corps was gone.
“It was a pretty horrific thing,” said Bob Piirainen, traffic safety manager, Combat Center Safety Office, “The damage to Nick’s bike was so bad that the only way to recognize it was by the two flags he flew on the back; the Marine Corps and the Prisoner of War flags.”
Piirainen rode motorcycles with Formosa, and just like all those who ride together, they were bound by the unspoken fraternity of motorcyclists everywhere.
“It’s tough when we lose one of (our own),” Piirainen said. “Whether it’s by their own doing or at the hand of somebody else, when one of us goes, it’s truly a tragedy. It really hits home.”
Piirainen has worked for the Combat Center’s Safety Office for the past 18 years, and has 36 years of experience as a motorcycle rider.
The loss of Formosa hit home not only because of their shared friendship, but because Piirainen and his colleagues at base safety are dedicated professionals, who are fiercely passionate about what they do for those aboard the Combat Center.
For the staff of the Combat Center Safety Office and the command of each and every unit aboard the installation, the safety of the Marines, sailors and civilians is paramount and even one life lost is one life too many. The safety office and military leadership are pushing the envelope with regard to safety training aboard the base by not only offering numerous training programs but also a high standard of quality for the training offered.
Within the past five years, the Combat Center’s Safety Office has received more than 11 awards and special recognitions from the National Safety Council, the California Motorcyclist Safety Program and the Commander in Chief. This is for the multiple areas of training they provide, to include their traffic safety programs.
“We have attacked traffic safety aboard (the Combat Center),” said Dave Horn, safety director, Combat Center Safety Office. “(Combat Center Base) Safety identified the necessity for heightened training with regard to traffic safety and the command has fully supported it.”
The safety office offers a wide variety of traffic and motor vehicle safety classes to the Marines and sailors aboard the Combat Center. Some are mandated and some are offered as additional training opportunities.
The Alive at 25 Defensive Driving Course is required by all military personnel under the age of 26 and must be taken within the first 60 days of duty at MAGTFTC, MCAGCC. This training establishes and reinforces a positive attitude towards driving, clarifies individual responsibility, and educates Marines on the correct responses of routine and emergency driving situations.
The Basic Rider Course is designed to provide new motorcycle riders with the basic principles and skills of riding necessary to obtain a motorcycle endorsement on their state of California operator's permit or their own state operator’s permit and is required for all Marines and sailors who plan to purchase or operate a motorcycle, regardless of their intent to register the motorcycle on base.
“I oversee and teach the Basic Rider Course, Advanced Rider Course, Dirt Bike Course, (All-Terrain Vehicle) course and the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Course,” Piirainen said. “I also oversee the driver improvement course, also known as Alive at Twentyfive, the remedial driver’s course, for those who get tickets on base or in town, and the off-duty recreation program.”
Since 2009, the Combat Center’s Safety Office has trained approximately 27,100 personnel in the Alive at 25 Course and 2,325 personnel in the Basic Rider Course.
“It’s not that we just teach the class and then go home,” Piirainen said. “We do this because we love it.”
Outside of these scheduled courses, Piirainen fits in time to discuss safety with units that have recently returned home from deployment, a training requirement typically mandated by the individual units.
Since 2009, the safety office has briefed 8,344 personnel on vehicle and motorcycle safety, 8,985 personnel during Safety Stand-Downs, and 4,676 personnel during Back in the Saddle Training.
“The things I coach Marines on are the dangers of drinking and driving but not just them drinking and driving, but how to defend against other people who are out there drinking and driving,” Piirainen said. “If they are on their cell phone or distracted in any other way, they can easily get hit or killed. We help them to understand that they are held accountable on the base just as much as off the base. The biggest thing I try to convey is that they are touchable outside the gate.”
On numerous occasions, in times of need, Piirainen has invited Marines to come over and has educated them on how to make repairs to their bikes and coach them on how to keep their bikes in good shape.
“When I do that, I can talk to them, motorcycle rider to motorcycle rider and try to get them to understand exactly what is at risk when they are out there on the road,” Piirainen said.
The staff of the Combat Center Safety Office and the leaders of each command have dedicated their time, energy and passion toward keeping the Marines and sailors of the Combat Center safe by empowering them with knowledge and resources, Horn said.
“Bottom line, we can’t hold the hand of every Marine out there driving, and we can’t protect them from the negligence and irresponsibility of other drivers,” Piirainen said. “What we can do is teach them how to be defensive drivers and how to make the right decisions that could keep them alive.”