Bronze Star III

Posted on July 23, 2009


The day after we raided the RGFC logistics base was day 3 of the ground war, but we weren’t counting. We were part of the 24th Infantry Division at that point, and the only heavy division between Baghdad and Kuwait. The rest of the coalition was chasing Iraq’s crack troops, the RGFC divisions, out of Kuwait and straight at us. Coalition HQ wanted us to raid Tallil Airfield, apparently to let Saddam Hussein know there was nothing between him and us. This was the day I “earned” the bronze star.

The plan was to drive our tanks into the airfield, shoot everything we could see, and then race off again to rearm and refuel before crushing the RGFC between us and the rest of the coalition army. Now, back in Part I, I mentioned that our brigade still had M113 armored personnel carriers. These cast aluminum vehicles weren’t armored well enough to be safe on airfield. Debris and sabots from our ammunition would cut right through them (one of the bravest men I ever met was a medic in 2/69 who defied orders and drove his M113 ambulance onto the airfield and provided medical attention to anyone who needed it). In Part II, I explained about mixed units and battalion task forces. So we had an infantry company that couldn’t go onto the airfield  and needed protection. Now, who could my battalion spare to guard the infantry? You got it. The platoon with only two tanks, and only one of those fully functional. In other words, mine.

We led the battalion west on Highway 6 until we got to the point where we had to turn off. We were supposed to reach a point from which we could protect the battalion from any Iraqi reinforcements, and from which we could prevent any organized escape from the airfield. The rest of the battalion kept going. As we drove away from the highway, my driver started swerving back and forth. I asked him why, and he said that the ground was green. He hadn’t seen green dirt in Iraq, and he was trying to avoid it. That should have been a warning, but except for one R&R trip to the coast and a brief glimpse of the Tigris River, we hadn’t seen open water since leaving Georgia. Despite aerial and satellite surveillance of the area, we had no warning of what came next.

Ahead of us was a berm. We’d seen them everywhere. The RGFC logistics base was covered in them. So we drove up this one. As we drove up, I saw water on the other side. As we kept climbing, I realized it was a lot of water. My loader and I realized at about the same time that the water was a canal wider than the tank was long. We both started yelling for the driver to stop…too late. The berm crumbled underneath us and we dropped into the canal. We tried to back out, but that just sucked the tank down against the bottom. With water coming into the driver’s compartment, we stopped the tank and tried to figure something out.

First, I made sure the company commander and my platoon sergeant knew what had happened. The commander had his infantry platoons spread out and try to find away across the canal. My platoon sergeant and I talked about using D12 to tow D11 out of the canal, and now I have to go off on another tangent. The exhaust gas from an M1-series tanks is over 1,000 degrees F. It can melt the paint off cars. It can make windshields liquefy and start running. It will certainly destroy the vision blocks that a tank driver uses to see out of his vehicle. So the Army buys special tow cables that are extra long for the M1-series tanks. Back in Part I, I mentioned that our tanks were stripped of accessories on their way from REFORGER sites to us. So we didn’t have the right cables.

My platoon sergeant was willing to risk the heat damage to his tank, but not to get his tank stuck. He believed, and I think he was right, that if he got D12 close enough to use the shorter tow cables that we did have, his tank would dig itself into the dirt. Then we’d have two stuck tanks. Obviously, that was a bad idea. We could have hooked two sets of cables together, and in retrospect maybe we should have risked it. Our concern was that whatever linked the cables together would snap, and then we’d have flying bits of metal and cables whipping around, so someone would get injured – most likely me, since I would be on the ground using hand signals to direct the recovery.

You might think that the Army would train us how to self-recover our tanks, and you would be right. It’s not hard. You get a tree trunk or a thick branch, maybe a telephone pole, and you chain it across the treads. When you try to drive the tank, the tracks pull the object under the tank. That breaks the suction between the muck and the bottom of the tank, and you roll yourself out of the mud. You get dirty, but that’s a small price to pay. Tough to find trees in Iraq, though, much less telephone poles. As I looked for something, anything, I realized two things. First, the infantry platoons were getting stuck in the mud around the canal – and M113s float. Second, I noticed that the company commander was yelling something at me.

It was “Incoming!”

The splashes in the mud around us were shells, fired from Tallil Airfield. I was not impressed. Until the company commander yelled at me, I literally thought my frustrated tank crew was venting by throwing rocks. There were no explosions that I remember, just splashes in the mud. It was ridiculous, but an M113 – especially with the top open – was certainly vulnerable. As was some dumb lieutenant with no protection but a helmet and a kevlar vest. You know – like me.

The only place to take shelter was inside my tank. I jumped in and pulled the hatch partially closed over my head. I told my crew what was happening. My gunner informed me that he was missing the war, and it was my fault for getting the tank stuck twice. His solution was to shoot back. The driver started the tank so the turret wouldn’t be running on battery power, and my gunner took his first shot. The range was about 3600 meters, or just over 2 miles. We could see a wall between us and the airfield, a water tower over the wall, and the muzzle flash from whatever was shooting at us. Our first shot was slightly low. The second one generated a fireball, and the shelling stopped.

The company commander called into the battalion for help retrieving my tank. While we waited, the infantry noticed a bunch of people moving away from Tallil and toward us. When we turned out sights on them, we realized they were Iraqi troops. The artillery may have frightened our infantry, but Iraqi foot-soldiers scared me. I was immobile in a canal. Sure, we had three machine guns on each tank, but there were too many people, and if we could shoot at them then they could shoot at us.

As a sop to our unit for not having the new M2/M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, every M113 in our two infantry battalions had a Mk19 automatic grenade launcher. Belt-fed, 40mm grenade launchers can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. All I remember is the weapons firing, and the ground rising up around and among the Iraqis. I don’t know if they got smart and hid, or if we killed them, but we didn’t see them again.

After that we found out that the battalion had already exceeded its towing capacity and there was no vehicle to recover D11. We had to destroy it in place. In the history books, they mention that the US Army destroyed two of its own M1A1 tanks during Desert Storm. One was mine. The other belonged to a friend in the same company (electrical fire – different story). That left my platoon with one tank, and the RGFC divisions racing toward us.