Bronze Star II

Posted on July 22, 2009

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Part I had most of the background information for this story, but there’s one more thing I need to explain. In the Army, there are “pure” units and mixed units. Companies and platoons are pure units. Battalions are technically pure units, although they have lots of support units like scouts, mortars, and mechanics. A brigade is always mixed. An infantry brigade like ours had two infantry battalions and one tank battalion – plus an artillery battalion, headquarters units, a cavalry troop, and so forth. In combat, though, battalions break up into task forces. We share our tanks with the infantry battalions, and they share infantry with us. Further, companies break up into teams. So, for example, when the war started, my tank platoon was part of an infantry company team: 2 infantry platoons, 1 tank platoon, and some other units (engineers, air defense artillery, medics, an anti-tank platoon, and so forth). So being a company commander is a complex job!

The ground war started 24-hours early for us. We were still using the exhausts from our tanks to dry out our sleeping bags. It was the wettest winter in the recorded history of the region, and every morning our gear got soaked with dew even when it wasn’t raining. Elsewhere, coalition forces were having unexpected success and we needed to launch early to keep the plan synchronized.

We crossed an earth berm into Iraq as the sun was setting. A “berm” is basically an earth wall. It’s not held together by anything. Although it’s mostly dirt, it has whatever the bulldozer scraped up in it. Maybe you already knew that. I want you to know that we started seeing them as soon as our part of the ground war started. They were ubiquitous.

As the sun set, a storm blew up. I’m not entirely sure how you can have a dust storm in the rain, but that’s what happened. The weather was so bad that we couldn’t see. So we stopped. Lines of tanks, trucks, personnel carriers, and various other vehicles stretched for miles. Some might still have been in Saudi Arabia for all I know. As the storm went on, we started rotating watches so crew members could rest. We kept someone awake in the drivers’ seats, and someone awake in the commander’s hatch. That way if the weather improved, we could get moving quickly. We would switch people back to their normal duty stations, if necessary, the first chance we got.

In the small hours of the morning, Captain (CPT) Jones called over the radio “Let’s get ready to move out.” The gunner of D13 was in the driver’s seat, and not as awake as he should have been. All he heard was “move out.” So he drove into the back of D14. The resulting crash snapped off the exhaust grill of D14 and severed the oil cooler lines at the back of the engine. Oil sprayed everywhere. When we settled everyone down, and kept our platoon sergeant from killing anyone in D13’s crew, we found that D14 couldn’t operate safely. No one was hurt. D13 was undamaged. So the gunner who screwed up was banished to D14 and we abandoned that tank where it sat. My platoon sergeant climbed into D13 (jumping tanks like that was normal practice), the rest of his crew stayed with D14 and the unfortunate gunner from D13, and we kept going.

For those of you keeping score at home: D11 worked fine, D12 didn’t shoot straight, and D13 was going to catch fire sooner rather than later. That was the state of things when we attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard Forces Command (RGFC) logistics base. Then I stuck my tank in the mud.

My battalion’s planned route into Iraq maximized concealment by advancing through wadis. A “wadi” is a dry riverbed. When I mentioned that the winter of 1990/1991 was the wettest recorded in the region’s history, that’s because there was a consequence. The riverbeds weren’t exactly dry any more. I saw the Delta Company commander’s tank, right in front of me, just sort of drop off to one side, as if it had slipped off the side of something under the muck. The mud was instantly up to the base of the turret. When my tank tried to go around, the same thing happened to us. I jumped into D12, leaving my crew to dig the tank out any way they could, preferably with the aid of a recovery vehicle and a winch, and we kept on going.

As we drove into the logistics base, I heard someone on the radio complain about all the smoke one of the tanks was spewing out. Since the smoke was white, it was easily visible against the night sky, and it silhouetted the tank at the base of the smoke. That would be bad in any case. Of course, I knew what had really happened. I got on the radio and told D13 that it was on fire. Through my night-vision goggles, I saw the tank commander whip around in the turret to look at his tank’s engine compartment. He had no idea until I said something that his filters had finally soaked up enough jet fuel to ignite. He stopped his tank.

We got through the rest of the night in D12 – me, my platoon sergeant, the tank commander, and the gunner. The tank commander was actually driving the tank, and my platoon sergeant acted as the loader. We got sent to look after a vehicle that rolled over. We took some prisoners. The next morning I discovered that the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) was set up next to D13. You can’t really call it “providing security” if an Iraqi officer trying to surrender wakes up your tank crew. The rest of the battalion was so far gone that I couldn’t raise anyone on the radio. The officers in the TOC gave me directions (back in those days, only company commanders had GPS units). As I walked back over to D12, my tank – D11 – pulled up. The battalion was so over-stressed that my guys had dug out the whole 70 ton tank with a shovel, by themselves and boy were they ever pissed off about it – at me.

I do understand it. We’d had maybe 4 hours of sleep in 3 days. None of us was entirely on an even keel. As tank commander, I was responsible for the tank being stuck. It didn’t matter that going through the wadis was someone else’s idea. It didn’t matter that there was no way to avoid the invisible “pot holes.” It didn’t matter that jumping tanks was standard Army procedure. No one cared that I couldn’t control whether or not a recovery vehicle was available. All they knew was that they had to dig the tank out by hand, without me. I understand why they were mad at me.

I had two tanks and directions. We took off across the desert. We got to Highway 6, a main thoroughfare between Baghdad and Kuwait. At that point it was raised on a berm so high that they had to run huge metal pipes through it so camels could migrate. We shot up one side of it, got airborne, crashed down on the metal dividers between the East- and West-bound lanes, shot over the other side, and realized our battalion was spread out below us. We slid to a barely-controlled stop in the perimeter and I walked over to the company commander like nothing unusual happened.

That’s when they told us about the plan to raid Talil Airfield…

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