Bronze Star I

Posted on July 21, 2009

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I’ve told the story about why I have a Bronze Star before, but never in a blog. I originally wrote it about fifteen years ago and I and my perceptions have changed since then. Lots of people in my life have found it interesting, so here I go again. Part I is mostly background information. If you’re familiar with Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and with US tank units of the time, you can skip this.

My Gulf War began one morning as I drove in to Kelly Hill on Fort Benning, in southern Georgia. I had recently finished a course training me to be a deployment officer. Normally the Army has those at the battalion level, but my brigade had decided to have them down to the company level. Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait a week or so before, and US forces were shipping out to the region. My unit (2nd Battalion, 69th Armor) was part of the 197th Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) (Separate) and was commanded by (then) Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ricardo Sanchez. I could explain all that, but it’s more detail than you need. Instead of being part of a division’s mission, our job was to be a training tool for the Infantry School and the School of the Americas. We figured we would watch the war on CNN, the same way we watched the invasion of Panama the previous Christmas. By the way, as a direct consequence of our role, we were the last active duty unit in the Army to upgrade to M1 tanks. When we deployed, we still had M113 personnel carriers rather than M2/M3 Bradleys.

The deployment training happened to include exactly how many railroad cars existed in the continental United States that could carry an M1-series main battle tank. All of them, every single one of those rail cars, was at the Ft. Benning railhead that morning. I knew immediately that things had changed, and we were going to the desert with our new M1 “improved product” (IP) tanks. We had finished our training and transition to the modern-ish  tanks, and performed one target-shooting exercise with them.

By September 2nd, we were in Saudi Arabia. Between then and the start of the ground war in February of the next year, we got new tanks. These tanks came from Cold War supplies that we had stockpiled in Germany. The M1A1 tanks were technically the latest models, but they’d been sitting in warehouses for a long, long time. They also passed through a lot of hands on their way from European warehouses to our unit in Saudi Arabia. Hands that were also preparing for deployment to the region. So the tanks were missing a lot of things, and we had to improvise and hustle to replace them. Let’s just say our previous tanks didn’t leave intact and move on.

In 1990, a tank platoon had four tanks. Each tank had 4 crew – a tank commander, a gunner, a loader, and a driver. As platoon leader, I was one of the tank commanders. Since we were part of Delta Company, all our tank identification numbers started with D. Since we were First Platoon, all four identification numbers started with D1. My tank was D11. My platoon sergeant was D14. My wingman was D12, and my platoon sergeant’s wingman was D13. Now, I tell you that so you can follow this next part. As we took ownership of our “new” M1A1 tanks, we realized that we had two problems. First, D13 was spraying fuel into its air filters. Tank fuel is jet fuel – basically kerosene, and highly flammable. Replacing the seals around the fuel lines required hundreds of man hours of painstaking work, and should really be done in a less dusty environment than the one we were in.

D12 had a different problem. In order to make the tank shoot straight, you have to calibrate the main gun with the gunner’s sights. You check the calibration when you have time, at least once a day, and 2-3 times daily is better. D12 would not hold its calibration for more than about 5 minutes. Fixing it required the gunner’s sight be removed. Let me just say that also required hundreds of man hours of work, and a cleaner environment than available.

You might wonder why we didn’t just throw enough resources at the tanks to fix the problems. Even the Army has limited resources. If you have to choose between fixing 20 problems that take 5 hours each, or 1 problem that takes 100 hours, you obviously fix the 20 problems. It’s just more bang for the buck, and that was the thinking our maintenance officers used. My tanks went to the back of the line, and didn’t get fixed before the war began.

That was the state of my platoon when the ground war kicked off. Got it all? Because there’s going to be a quiz later…

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