January 10, 2013

Combat Narratives Part 2

Our first official campaign was against the Iraqi Republican Guard, a highly trained mechanized division under Saddam Hussein. They never ran from or surrender to our overwhelming force.  The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division had over 20,000 enemy kills in three campaigns. My crew was the spear tip and I drove for 172 hours in the largest tank battle in the history of war in the 100 Hour Ground War. The Army VII Corps' mission was to cut off the Iraqi Republican Guard supply lines before our descent into Kuwait and attack, attack, attack everything along the way.
My squad
Blazing 50 Mph across the sands towards the front line, my 32 ton combat loaded Bradley drove over a sand dune into a landmine field stopping us in our tracks and throwing everyone inside forward. Sgt Tickle flipped out and started cussing why we had stopped and I could hear my captain in the background cursing. As they both continued the barrage of swearing and demanding I screamed, “Shut the fuck up and look out your window, we're in a landmine field!” As reality sunk in, I assessed our trajectory into the field and found we had landed at an angle and missed detonating a single mine. What took less than two seconds to get into, took us about 15 to 20 minutes to get out of. A paltry amount of time when you have all you need; but our job was to guide our tanks into battle. Being 20 minutes late was not an option. In this moment we melded as a squad, we had becoming one body. I felt a welling of emotions circling despair; I was to succumb or prevail and tuned into my machine, environment and crew in a way I had never experienced.

Sgt T had to stand out of his hatch exposed giving directions to thread us back through our tracks laid, without any deviance from the trail. Sgt Tickle to me, “Straight, stop! Left back, stop. Right, back, stop. Forward left, stop!” As I was driving blind as my thoughts went to a conversation we had the night before. I was complaining about driving for two days straight without sleep, and Sgt Tickle says, “The only way your backup driver is going to drive is if you are dead! Got that soldier?” Welling with pride from the high praise to his biggest pain in the ass private. I had his implicit trust and felt respected and honored. The instant bond enabled me too read the inflections in his voice, his marked tone indicating we were on the track in the sand. An abrupt, “Straight ahead! Right, straight, left.”
I kept an eye on the horizon for the enemy and the ground for unexploded ordnance, not just for me but my brigade to follow. The problem compounded by staying awake for days peering out four periscopes ranging from 8 o'clock to 1:00 o'clock in the heat with fatigue and boredom made it especially hard at night watching the one-inch by half-inch red nighttime lights on the rear my leading vehicles. One on the right most vehicle of the 1st brigade and the left most of the 2nd brigade; my first job was to keep in between each with a mile in between in a reversed diamond figure with 3rd brigade on the rear single point. Keeping my eyes on two read lights on the back of vehicles 1 to 2 miles from me became a dancing ritual of fidgeting and flexing my body and wiggling and squinting to stay awake. After two days of no sleep, I though four days would be impossible – seven days only if my life depended on it.

Before we went into battle while sitting on a ridge waiting our orders I watched the Multiple Long Range Rocket systems launched live rounds from behind, hailing the night with eerily beautiful red streaks filling the horizons. Underneath the belly of the deadly mosaic red lines our Apache helicopters erupted with Hell-fire missiles, snaking through the air without aim and at the last-minute ministering vaporizing showers of demise. Coming through the nighttime curtain of fire where our artillery rounds lobbing to find their targets with a core shaking boom, boom, boom resounding a boosted repetition of bursting bombs rending reality from unlucky enemy crews. Beneath the Apaches our M1A Main Battle Tanks were firing and hitting the enemy tanks with columns of flame erupting 100 feet in the air, flipping turrets end over end atop jets of roiling plasma. In the closest I saw bodies rendered, splayed and sprayed within the ejecta in showers of molten metal and steel. The first a religious experience, the next several thousand was getting the job done. I heard somewhere from the muted distant, “Move out!”

Dodging bursting bombs while wreathing and fracking my spine. God help me! He answered, smothering me with heaps and mounds of apathy. Driving through eruptions of earth and reason, exploding ordnance ringing off the edges of my Bradley as shock waves tumble through my steel trap. Bracing against my slanted seat and butterfly steering wheel and driving the blade deep into the enemy. The physics of war upending earth all around as we thread between artillery rounds, to the right one of our Bradley's throw track in a hard turn in the sand. I slammed the gear in reverse and backed out of the artillery barrage driving 50 mph trusting my Track Commander with his steady sharp commands of, “Left, right. Straight.” I was watching as the lobbing bombs attempting to find our target, “Boom!” and a pause further away, “Boom.” Sgt Tickle says, “Right! Straight. Left, right, left.”

We pulled back far enough to dismount and watched one of our Bradley's repair track in an artillery barrage inside a ferocious tank battle set against the fiery sky. After letting down the back troop-hatch to let the guys get a breather, I got out to join them so we can watch our guys changing track. It took them and outstanding 15 minutes of a 45 min process. As we stood together on the back hatch watching the battle, we begin to hear a pesky whistling sound coming in, louder and louder. As we all started looking around, KA-BOOM! The heated blast rung my ears and my skin went dry, just out of the kill zone considering none of us took any shrapnel. I was in the driver's seat from the back landing hatch screaming at our team before half of them got in, “Get your fucking asses in!” As I started to raise the rear dismount hatch, looking back over the gear as the last soldier jumped in as the seal set shut. My head was ringing as I slapped the driver's hatch release for the second time; combat operations when the drivers hatch door clangs.

Somewhere in the blazing haze of timelessness after our third engagement Private E1 and PFC Lee's assignment was the cleaning our dead vehicles of weapons and intelligence. We were walking side by side each taking a 180 degree sector to scan. Our M16's slung in the ready as I look off into at scorched earthed damns hiding distorted hulking bombed out shells, shuddering and wondering how anything survived and where all the bodies were. Private E1 says “Lee, check this out!” With his right foot cocked back ready to kick tuna fish looking can with shinny spider legs. Instantaneously I grabbed him and his gear pitching us both over, body slamming Private E1. Then jumped up cussing, “You stupid ass mother-fucker! You almost kicked one of our air-dispersal anti-personnel mines!” I was not recommending him for a promotion.

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