Thursday, November 20, 2014

Total Reverse: At the End Drill on Sunday, I Decided to Try to Stay for Another Year or Two

Pretty soon I will be older than the model for this picture.  But despite that, I just wrote a letter to ask to extend my enlistment for two more years in the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.

The reason for the change, as far as I can tell, began with seeing "Fury."  I may not be able to return to tanks, but after a weekend of talking to soldiers I have served with for years now, I knew I would hate myself if I didn't at least try to stay in.  So I wrote a letter saying why it was good for the Army to keep me in for another year or two.

I don't know if it will work.  Waivers over age 62 have to be approved by Big Army at the Pentagon, not just at the state level.

I will let you know.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Seeing "Fury" for the Fourth Time

Last night I saw the move Fury for the fourth time.  I was in NYC and saw it with Jim Dao, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.

Seeing it the fourth time, I was just as impressed with the crew and how accurate every tank scene was--until the final battle scene when everything went all John Wayne.  I did not leave the theater in the same emotional haze that enveloped me as I walked form the theater the first time.  That night I walked out of the theater ready to re-enlist for six years--if I could serve in tanks.

My favorite scene remains the four American Sherman tanks battling the single German Tiger tank until just the heroes' tank remained.  I loved watching the gunnery procedure in fine detail.  Four times watching Bible shoot, Coon-ass load, Gordo drive and Wardaddy lead the crew just made the whole scene look better.

Of course, by the fourth time, I realized my view of the action is very different from someone who has never sent rounds downrange from inside a tank turret.  Like a helicopter pilot in a simulator, I can feel and smell things that non-pilots completely miss.

I may see the movie again in a theater before it goes to video.  I am sure I will own the video when it is available.

If you haven't seen it yet, enjoy!!!!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tankers Final Exam, Part 2 "Gunner, HEAT, Tank"

We rolled down the firing lane scanning the trees and dunes ahead on the range at Fort Carson in southern Colorado.  Off to the left just over a mile away, a 6 by 6 wood panel popped and I yelled my favorite fire command into the headset:

Gunner, HEAT, Tank!

At the moment, Burhans brought the tank to a smooth halt.  I traversed the turret left and got the gun on the target.  While the turret traversed Geno loaded a HEAT round into the chamber and yelled "Up" announcing the main gun was loaded and ready to fire. The High Explosive Anti Tank round has a projectile shaped like a whiskey bottle.

The round detonates when the nose of the round touches the target, but the detonation is at the back of the round.  It forms a shaped charged that burns a hole through up to a foot of armor plate.  An explosive shell would not penetrate half that much armor.  The best round for punching through armor plate is the solid-shot SABOT.  We'll get to that later.

With HEAT loaded, Merc moved the sights to center of mass of the panel, shouted "On the way" and fired.  The tank rocked back as the main gun recoiled, splitting the turret in half.  The spent cartridge from HEAT round clattered to the metal floor of the turret.  Geno slammed another HEAT round into the chamber and yelled "Up."  I saw the tracer pass through the panel with my binoculars and announced "Hit."

One of the advantages of HEAT over the more effective SABOT round for the tank commander, is that it is easier to adjust fire.  With a muzzle velocity of 3,850 feet per second, the HEAT round took two seconds to travel from the gun to the target.  The SABOT round covers the same distance in just over a second.  That extra second gives me a better chance of seeing through the huge cloud of smoke and flame coming from the gun muzzle.

Merc refined his aim as he always did, announced "On the way" and fired.  Another round, another hole in the panel.  "Driver, Move Out."

Next, machine guns.

Geno stood with a HEAT round cradled in his arms on the opposite side of the turret from Merc and I.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Remembering the Tanker's Final Exam

The Moment After the 105mm Round Goes Downrange

Last post ended when my crew and I lined up for the moving range at my first annual tank gunnery.  It was April 1976.  I had enlisted in the Army the year before after spending 2-1/2 years in the Air Force.  I was a Specialist at enlistment in June of 1975, got promoted to Sergeant in January and was a tank commander.  For the driver, PFC Richard Burhans, and I it was our first gunnery.  For the loader, PFC Gene Pierce, this would be his second annual gunnery.  My loader, SPC "Merc" Morris, had been a loader in the two previous years.  This would be his first time as a gunner.  

And gunner was the position The Lord made him for.

Merc was a rumpled, complaining, lousy soldier in many ways, but was good with numbers and could think quickly and clearly about ranges, ammo and adjusting fire.   

As we rolled onto the range we loaded ammo and waited in springtime sun in Colorado.  Blue sky, little wind, and lots of nerves.  The moving range takes the crew down a lane with nine targets.  Four main gun targets, three coaxial machine gun targets, and two .50 caliber machine gun targets.  The "Coax" machine gun is a 7.62mm, belt-fed weapon mounted parallel or coaxially with the main gun.  The .50-cal is fired by the commander in the cupola on top of the tank.

After the command "Driver, Move Out" we move slowly down the range.  We are all scanning left, right and front for targets.  The first targets pop up to the right: troop targets at 400 meters.

Before I talk about firing, a word about crew commands.  The fire command is primarily for the gunner, but tells the whole crew to do something.  The format is: Alert, Ammo, Target.  So for the first engagement, when I saw the troop targets, I used the commanders override turret control to swing the turret close to the target area.  As I swung the turret, the driver brought the tank to a smooth stop and I said, "Gunner. Coax. Troops."

Merc then brought the sights to the center of the troop concentration and announced "On the way" as he squeezed the trigger.  The loader made sure the ammo belt was feeding smoothly into the coaxial machine gun while the gunner fired.

Before the new tanks with stabilized sights and guns, tanks fired from the halt.  So every time I issued a fire command, the driver's job was to bring the tank smoothly to a halt as level as possible.

Merc put a dozen tracers in the area--a total of 60 rounds.  I called ""Cease Fire!"  And then "Driver, Move Out."

The whole crew scanned for targets.  To the left, a tank-sized panel popped up.  First main gun engagement.

More next post. . .

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Fury" Brings Back Memories of Tank Gunnery and Life in a Turret.

On Monday night my son Nigel and three men from Church went to see "Fury" with me.  I re-read books I love and will watch movies and TV shows I like a second, third, or more times.  Re-reading and re-watching takes away the delight of surprise that only the first time can offer, but removing surprise lets the best moments sink in more deeply.

In 1976 I spent more time inside my tank "Bad Bitch" than at any other time in my Army career.  That year our brigade was training to go to Germany for three years as Brigade '76--4,000 combat soldiers with an alert area in Fulda, West Germany:  the place where everyone thought the ground war with the Soviet Army in Europe would start.  Tom Clancy wrote his best novel about that war:  "Red Storm Rising."

In the Spring of 1976, the 54 tanks of 1st Battalion, 70th Armor, spent three weeks in the Colorado desert for annual gunnery training.  For three months before that I read the 700-page maintenance and operation manual for the M60A1 Patton tank I commanded from cover to cover.  I came to the Army from the Air Force and was determined to be as good as the Army at tank gunnery.

For three months before gunnery, my crew was the last to go home at night, and sometimes was in on weekends when everyone else was off so we could drill on every aspect of tank gunnery.  Some afternoons we drove to the top of a hill near the motor pool and tracked cars on Interstate 25.  Moving targets are difficult with a tank cannon.  We drilled on tracking targets for hours.

One of the things "Fury" gets so right is how different the members of a crew can be and how well they can work together confined in a turret despite all those differences.  My gunner was Specialist Morris.  His nickname was "Merc."  Because Mercury Morris was a start running back of the 70s.  I was a starched, creased ambitious young sergeant.  Merc was a very good gunner, but a wrinkled, complaining soldier who was at his best after smoking dope.  Outside the tank we would not spend two minutes together.  Inside Merc and I became a team that could hit targets, even if we could never hit it off.

We had an amazing loader in Eugene "Geno" Pierce.  Geno was big, strong and quick.  He could flip and armor-piercing round into the breach one-handed in two seconds and have the second round in the chamber while the first one was still rattling to the bottom of the turret after the first shot.  Our driver, Rich Burhans, was a lanky, laid-back Minnesotan.  He was perfect as a driver.  He could wait calmly during long delays and then driver the 54-ton tank smoothly down the firing lanes.

On the final day of tank gunnery when we were next up to fire on the moving range, Merc walked off into the woods to "have a smoke."  He came back calm and happy.  We were ready to fire.  Would three months of practice really pay off on the ten-minute "Final Exam" for tankers?

Next post.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review of "Fury"

Last night I went to see the movie "Fury" at the 945pm showing.  That meant movie did not start until 1006pm and was not over until after midnight.

At more than 20,000 days my life is much too long to say for sure this is the best movie I have ever seen, but it is the best movie I can remember ever seeing.  I walked out of the movie slowly after watching the credits.  

I never stay for the credits.

But the credits of Fury show actual footage from World War 2 I remember from documentaries.

The story begins in the flaming, smoking wreckage of a tank battle with a lone German on a horse riding into the scene.  The somber calm is broken when Brad Pitt jumps from his tank and kills the German with a knife.  Pitt and his crew are the only survivors of the battle.  They get the disabled tank running and return to the war.

From this scene onward, the movie gets perfectly right the claustrophobic, noisy dangerous world inside a tank.  Even without a war, every tank turret is divided in half by a main gun.  When the main gun is fired, the gun recoils almost to the back of the turret.  Hands, legs, gear, bodies or anything else behind the main gun gets crushed.  This movie gets that danger right.  The crew calls the metal enclosure home, but home is a place that can turn into a fuel and ammo fueled inferno.

In the middle of the movie, four American Sherman tanks are attacked by one German Tiger tank.  The American tanks are outgunned by the more heavily armored German tank and three of the four Sherman tanks are smoking wrecks by the time the brief, violent battle ends.  The way the fight went brought back my best memories of tank gunnery and how well a crew that agrees on little or nothing outside the tank can mesh to put fire on targets.

Like "Saving Private Ryan" the premise of the last scene is ridiculous.  But unlike Ryan, which had me laughing and calling "bullshit" I stayed with the movie because even if the scene was unbelievable tactically, as bad as the worst John Wayne movie, the final scene made clear how attached crews can become to their tank and to each other.

The battle between the Tiger and the Shermans is worth the price of admission by itself.  Brad Pitt's character drew me in past every filter I have for war movies.

I am going to see Fury again in the theater.  Maybe twice.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Apache Live Fire

In mid-August I watched AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters fire rockets and cannon at targets on Range 40 at Camp Grayling, Michigan.  The exercise included ground troops, mortars, artillery and US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack fighters.

Here are the Apaches firing rockets and cannon:

Next post I will show the ground crews loading the rockets and 30mm chain gun.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Changing Faster Than a Chameleon Running Across a Rainbow Bridge

Every day this month something happened that made think either, 'I should try to get a waiver and stay in the Army.'  Or 'I would get out tomorrow if I could.'

What I will actually do is put on my uniform an hour before the sun comes up tomorrow and go to drill.  When I get there, we will have formation, then I will have two, two-hour classes: one on resiliency and one on how to get along with people of other races, sexes, sexual orientations, etc.  

Wednesday, when I found out about the classes, it was one of those I-can't-be-out-soon-enough days.  The resiliency classes are pop psychology which may work for people under normal, everyday, I-live-in-America levels of stress which includes three meals a day, shelter, smart phone, computer, TV and a thousand other things the majority of the world would LOVE to have.  But resiliency training is not going to work if you are face down on one side of the road with you lower leg still in the Humvee you were just blown out of.  Suffering builds courage, builds inner strength, builds the resiliency the Army really wants us to have.  But we get two hours of pop psychology instead.

Today, I wanted to stay in.  I was talking to one of the funniest soldiers in my unit, a Blackhawk pilot named Latifa Gaisi who posted a link on Facebook about a female F-16 pilot flying for the United Arab Emirates Air Force hitting ISIS targets.  Talking to Latifa made me want to stay in.  The 1st Infantry Division set up its headquarters in Iraq.  That's 500 pairs of boots on the ground that are set up to command 15,000.  Are they there just to enjoy Iraq in the Fall?  This time we are not trying to win hearts and minds.  Every soldier I know who was part of the ridiculous mission in the last war, would like to return with a mission to win, me included.

Tonight, my sons came home from school, one after cross country practice and the other after getting help with English from one of the tutors on his squash team at F&M College.  The boys are doing well--much better than last year.  In part it is because they are in a better school, but it is also because I am home a lot more.  I work just two days a week.  When they have trouble I am around.  I am not riding a train or off at a three-month Army school.  

So it also seems to be time to let Latifa and the other 20-year-olds go off and smash ISIS.  I even backed out of doing the 28-mile ruck march on October 11.  I am getting shoulder surgery soon and carrying a 35-pound pack for 9 hours could switch my torn ligaments from scheduled surgery to emergency.

I will try to enjoy the next several months till I am out.  But currently, the chameleon is stopped--far away from green.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's Next Neil??

"What's next Neil?" My riding buddy Chris Peris asked me that question yesterday.  I have been hearing it a lot since the Ironman.  I did not answer quickly because we were riding fast and my jaw hurt from getting the first stage of a root canal yesterday morning.

I could give several answers to the question:

  • Since I am out of the Army next spring, I can actually race again without Army training eating up all the weekends at the peak of the race season in May and June.
  • Jim Dao and Ethan Demme both want to do Half Ironman events next year.  I could be interested in that.
  • Next month is the 28-mile March for the Fallen--in uniform with a 35-pound Rucksack.
But here's the definite answer:
  • Shoulder surgery, probably in December.
  • Dental implant next month.
  • Tomorrow I will find out if I am getting a root canal or another dental implant.
  • Three crowns.
All of the above are things I put off because I did not want to interrupt Ironman training.

So the answer to "What's next Neil?" is getting various parts of my body repaired from Ironman training, previous crashes and the wear and tear of living more than 23,000 days.

Another dimension of "What's next?" is what I am doing now that I work two days a week and go to Philadelphia just once a week.  Ten years ago when I worked as a consultant, I took a course at F&M College each semester:  French, five courses in Ancient Greek, two each in Organic Chemistry and Physics.  

This semester I signed up for Russian 101. Hearing that I did this, one of my running buddies (who is multi-lingual) said, "Language is not like the Ironman.  There is always more to learn.  There is no finish line."   

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tough Mudder vs. Ironman, Part 3

Six Minutes to Midnight I crossed the finish line.  Many times after bicycle races I felt good enough that I thought:   'I didn't try hard enough.'  That thought NEVER crossed my mind as I limped and to the car after the Ironman.  I looked for a fork sticking out of me, because I was DONE!

I wrote in previous post that time I spent training for the Ironman exceeded anything I did for the Tough Mudder.  In fact my second Tough Mudder was easier because of the Ironman training.

Now that I have actually finished the Ironman, the contrast between the two events is much sharper.

After I crossed the finish line, a smiling woman grabbed my arm and steered me toward my finisher's medal and asked me if I need anything.  She was looking at an old guy she was worried would collapse.  She guided me to the end of the finishing chute.  I told her I could walk to the car a half-mile away.  She let me go.  It took nearly a half hour for me to walk, limp, shuffle, stop, lean on walls and railings and finally get my very sore self back to the car.  I was as completely exhausted as I have ever been.

After the last Tough Mudder I jumped on a single-speed bike and rode 18 miles including several mile-long hills back to my car.  I was bruised, cut, and smelled like a barnyard, but the next day, I was fine.

Although I shared 16 miles of the marathon with a great guy I met on the Ironman course, hanging with friends is not the point of the Ironman.  I only did the second Tough Mudder because I had a friend who would do it with me.  If I ever do another Tough Mudder it will be with a group from my Army unit or my Church or some other group of people I would like to share a tough experience with.

If you are thinking "Which should I do?" my advice would be form a team and do a Tough Mudder.  But if you want to see how much you can suffer in one day, train for the Ironman.  You will feel awesome when you finish--but not so good the next morning.