Memorial Day 2016: A tanker’s tale

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Updated May 31, 2016

I always ask my brother, Lehi Benton, who is an Iraq war combat veteran, to help me out with Memorial Day pieces. This year, he wrote one especially for the truckers, because he realizes how much they rely and depend upon their machines — a lot like Army tankers. Please take a moment to honor our fallen veterans today, and enjoy a story from one who made it home. –Wendy

Lehi in Al DoraThe years are lining up, becoming both a veil and a magnifying glass on my days in combat. Somehow, it seems like my memories become obscured in the dust, like so many red-sky sandstorms we would marvel at. There are still some things, though, that pierce that dust with the clarity of thunder.

The whirr and whine of our tank engines, and along with it, the feeling of safety we got inside her thick depleted uranium skin. She was our Mother … carrying her brood in her belly, and bringing a shocking end to anything that would threaten her progeny. Just like the men that were beside us, she had become as much a part of our circle of humanity as any person could be. To us, she was alive, and we loved her like any man loves his horse, or his canine companion, or … his Mother.

On this Memorial Day, I’d like to recognize the trucking audience. We have something in common. Right now, your livelihood depends upon a machine under your care. As I’m sure many of you already know, there are probably more times you feel that you are under the machine’s care.

I spent my days in the Army in the MOS 19K (19 Kilo) — an M1 Abrams Armor Crewmember. I was a Cavalryman. Our attachment to our machine would be very hard to explain to anyone that doesn’t understand it as we do. She is alive. She is something we both hate and worship. When we lose her, it is certainly as emotional as losing a friend. My story for this Memorial Day isn’t tragic, but it is sad. It’s the story of our machine, and the last day we saw her. This is a Soldier’s story, so in honoring our fallen Brothers today I’ll honor something we loved so dearly.

We were in that last two weeks of a long and grueling deployment. The unit replacing us had already shown up, and they were starting to take some of our patrol duties, allowing us to prepare for re-deployment back to the States. All of us were worn linen-thin. We had lost some buddies, and some others would never recover from their injuries. We were beginning to realize that even though we had convinced ourselves we were going to die, we weren’t. I guess we may have convinced ourselves that we were going to die in part because we actually believed it, but mainly because it allowed us to let go of that little bit of our soul, giving us the courage to leave the wire every day.

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We were gaunt and dirty, years older than we were 6 months ago. I felt like Rip Van Winkle. I was waking up to thoughts of seeing my family; of eating good food; and of sleeping for days. But there was still work to be done.

Part of the process for getting ready to leave was stripping our equipment off of our tanks. We were tankers, and we spent days crawling around on our tanks like little green monkeys on a giant brown turtle. We had to remove all of the mounted weapons, all of the ammunition (which was about as much per tank as was needed to destroy a city the size of Dallas), all the radios and commo equipment, all the tools, and all of our personal items. It wasn’t until I was digging through the sponson boxes along the sides of the turret that the thought occurred to me. “Where is she going…?”

The thought was rattled out of my conscious as I pulled an Army-issue Gortex rain jacket out that was riddled with holes. It had been in our first sponson box. It was no longer effective as a rain jacket, but as was the case with most tankers, we kept it because of superstition. The holes were shrapnel holes from the first IED we ran over. It seemed like 20 years ago. It hit on the commander’s side, and broke our track. He was out of the hatch when it detonated, spraying chunks of spall and metal upward right toward his head and face. The impact had caused the sponson to fly open, and in the process the lid deflected quite a few pieces of shrapnel that probably would have killed our Platoon Sergeant and tank commander. One big chunk cut through it, though. For some reason he had done something he doesn’t do often, and placed the commander’s weapon — a .50 caliber M2 machine gun — over to the side of his cupola for a better view of the road. The chunk slammed into his weapon, destroying it in the process, but also deflecting upward. That must have been his lucky day. No one was hurt, and fixing broken track was like changing oil to us. Little green monkeys were scuttering around momentarily, and she was soon limping home.

We found the jacket later on while replacing parts. We actually had to keep the swiss cheese sponson for a time while we waited on a new one. It was our Platoon Sergeant who pulled it out. My loader and I were fastidiously working on something else on the other side of the tank. I was engrossed in some menial task when I felt him nudge me. We both looked over, and he was there, in silence, holding the jacket up. The intense Iraqi sun was shining through about fifty holes. For the first time ever, we saw him look visibly shaken. Even after the explosion he was barking and directing, like getting blown up was something he expected to happen. I’m sure he did. She had taken the damage for him. She sacrificed herself. Something she would do over and over again.

Being the low-ranking guys on the crew, my loader and I ended up doing most of the back-breaking maintenance work on the tank. Tanks are peculiar machines. To this day, I have never seen another machine that will actually break while it is sitting still. I always thought about how strange it was — the most formidable land weapon on earth, and just keeping it running is more difficult than actually taking it in to combat.

A tank platoon consists of four tanks, numbered 1-4. 1 is the Platoon Leader, usually a lieutenant, and 4 is the Platoon Sergeant. 2 and 3 are Staff Sergeants. I was on the four tank. Our Platoon call sign was “Horseman” (get it — four horsemen?), and our radio call sign was Horseman 4. Tanks are usually given a crew-bestowed name that gets painted on the barrel in a ceremony of sorts. This ceremony had very recently been outlawed by the “higher-ups,” because it made them seem too imposing. You know, because an M1A2 Abrams tank isn’t imposing until you paint a name on it.

But I digress. This didn’t keep us from naming our hogs. We were in Charlie Company, and tradition dictates that your tank’s name start with the letter of you company. My loader, whom we called “Bob” (that wasn’t his name), decided we would name ours “Circle X.” This was because when crewmembers fill out weekly maintenance paperwork, any component with a circled X means it is “deadlined” — not repairable until we get new parts. We thought it was funny. I would discover later that Bob had kept track of all the new parts we had to install on our tank throughout the deployment, and written them in permanent marker under the thermal viewer screen on the commander’s station. He even put the dates they were done, and also included IED strikes. Most definitely a treasure for any new crewmen to stumble upon, if not a grim warning.

Circle X became a legend. There was a story about her running through mechanical deficiencies that should have debilitated her. The mechanics were baffled. She endured hit after hit from IEDs and powered through, never allowing her crew to be touched.

I remember so many nights, peering into the green light of my driver’s night-vision block. I could hear the whirr of her turbine engine humming through the earpieces of my CVC helmet. It was comforting. It was safety. We knew deep down that she wouldn’t let us die. She earned a spirit of her own through the love, hate and admiration of her crew. I was deeply attached to her, and I wasn’t the only one.

I asked my Platoon Sergeant where Circle X was going. The unit replacing us was infantry, and they didn’t use tanks. We did know we weren’t taking her with us. He said she was to be shipped into the Green Zone and doled out to another unit eventually.

Once she was stripped down, Bob and I went up to the barracks to get ready to make the long walk to the chow hall. I asked my Platoon Sergeant if he wanted to go or if he wanted us to bring anything back. He said “No. I’m just going to sit out here for a little while.” His voice was shaky and distant. His eyes were fixed upon Circle X. She looked like a lion that had been shaved bald without her weapons and commo antennas. He walked away toward the tank.

Bob and I lingered in silence for a minute, watching him. He placed his hand on the side of Circle X, and stared at the ground. Slowly, Platoon Sergeant placed his foot in the cable stirrup attached to the front skirt, and climbed up to his cupola. As he lowered himself down into the commander’s station, Bob and I turned to walk away. We could hear his sobs. There were tears welling in my own eyes, and I heard Bob sniffling. Losing her was the ultimate end to the hell we had been through. It was the closure we didn’t know we had coming.

Bob and I walked up a dusty tank trail in silence, quietly wiping our eyes. –Lehi Benton

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