Military Simulators Come Under Fire

Eliminated: Dec. 2, 2009 Age: 18 Dance Specialty: Contemporary Home: Sanford, N.C. Noelle is a small-town girl who grew up on a farm. She recently graduated from high school in Sanford, NC, where she now teaches contemporary dance.
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Former Army Sgt. Robert Bejarano says he's lucky to be alive.

"I couldn't even feel my face at all -- this whole section of my face. Honestly, I thought my whole face got blown off," he says.

CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports Bejarano was injured while training soldiers when a combat simulator he was unloading went off. The devices - electronic boxes placed on tanks and ground targets - simulate the flash and bang of live fire. They use an explosive known as the "Hoffman round."

"We all knew they were unstable," he says. "It's like rolling the dice: You're going to get hit sooner or later."

A CBS News investigation found that since 1983, scores of soldiers have suffered serious injuries when simulators and the explosives they use -- known as "Hoffman rounds" -- went off when they weren't supposed to.

Bejarano wasn't the only one in his unit to be injured. He recalls the "first one I witnessed that got blown up."

Shrapnel drilled a hole in Armando Briceno's head.

"I was telling him he was all right. He'll be just fine. But the whole time I was doubting myself," says Bejarano. "I was thinking to myself, 'This guy isn't going to make it.'"

He did make it, but a few months later yet another of Bejarano's soldiers at Ft. Irwin was maimed. He had to abandon his dream of becoming an Army recruiter.

"I don't think they want people recruiting with a bunch of scars on their face and half of an ear," Bejarano says.

Rich Potter lost most of his hearing in a simulator accident more than a decade ago.

"It blew up, and my ears have never been the same since," says Potter

The system was unplugged and supposedly safe.

"They shouldn't use them any more," says Potter. "They're not safe. Somebody else is going to get hurt, God forbid. Somebody's going to die. Sooner or later somebody will get killed."

Army Private Christopher Cerda was killed in a training exercise at Ft. Irwin. Officially he was "struck by a 25mm round" when "his vehicle got between a Bradley fighting vehicle and a target."

But according to accident reports and soldiers on the scene, there's much more to the story.

Former Army Sgt. Robert Bejarano was monitoring the simulators the morning Cerda was killed.

"You could sit there and watch those things go off like popcorn," Bejarano says. "All the Hoffmans were going off right in that valley."

Cerda's vehicle was crossing a valley filled with targets when numerous witnesses say the simulators began misfiring, drawing the attention of Bradley gunners who are trained to fire at those targets. A soldier with Cerda later said, "There were two simulator rounds that went off above our vehicle ... targets were popping up ... It was then that we were hit." Hit by a Bradley gunner.

"Apparently he shot at a target but missed the target and I guess the guys were right in the line of fire," says Bejarano.

Army safety officials didn't even consider the misfiring simulators and tried to blame a faulty gun mechanism for the accident, but that conclusion was discounted by military investigators. In fact, in most cases, the military blames soldiers for the accidents.

"They swore up and down that those demolitions were stable and we know that they were lying through their teeth,'' Says Bejarano. "I still get mad. I've got two soldiers that are permanently scarred."

Part Two: Army Covered-Up True Cause Of Accidents For 20 Years