Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Doug in the Presence of General Officers; Part 1

As I reflect on my army career, I would like to think that I was good at what I did. But I had my moments. I think I remember those moments more because they (more often than not) involved general officers.

So there I was. Grafenwohr, Germany; February, 1999. I was a tank platoon leader deployed to 'Graf' for a 30+ day tank gunnery exercise. The culmination of these types of exercises is the conduct of Tank Table XII, better described as a tank platoon live fire exercise. This is where I got to prove my stuff. Could I handle and direct the fire and maneuver of M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks? We were about to see.

To add some spice to the whole gunnery evaulation, my company commander informed me that the battalion commander would be trailing my platoon during the run in his tank. If that wasn't enough, he would have our Assistant Division Commander for Support, the ADC-S, with him. It just so happens that the ADC-S was none other than General Ray Odierno (the curernt commadner of all forces in Iraq). He was a promotable colonel at the time. As an artilleryman by trade, he was out at 'Graf' to check out how the guys who shoot straight do it.

So there I was. Looking out across the blanket of snow, I was checking out the three other tanks in my platoon. We were in a 'coil', forming a circle with all the tanks pointing outward for security. We were ready to begin the maneuver portion of the evaluation for Tank Table XII. Off in the distance I could see my commander in his tank; parked next to the battalion commander with the aforementioned Odierno.

My commander gave me the order to uncoil and begin maneuvering toward Range 301 where we were to conduct our live fire. Loaded with 120mm tank rounds and thousands of rounds of machine gun ammunition, we began our move.

So there I was. Perched atop my 70-ton iron death chariot, commanding combat soldiers across the German winterland. So far, so good. We were in a wedge formation with my tank in front. My wing man to my back right, my platoon sergeant to my back left about 150 meters and his wing man to his back left. We had good dispersion, the gunners were scanning their sectors and we were maintaining good radio discipline. And then I looked to the front. Something didn't compute. Cat tails. Cat tails sticking 12 inches up out of the snow about 50 meters to my front. Wait a second, I thought. Something is not right. Let's do the math. Twelve inches of cat tail plus six inches of snow. That's not right. Cat tails aren't 18 inches tall. And then, just as we were on about to be on top of them, I realized that were about to drive into a 4-5 foot drift of snow. My tank tipped forward and we fell through the snow. We were in a hole.

This was not going well.

So there I was ... in a ditch. We went in hard. "Is everyone alive in there?" my platoon sergeant asked over the radio. He didn't even bother with call signs. "Roger," I responded. I told my driver to punch it. Use all 1,500 horsepower to get us out. What I didn't take into account was that the hot exhaust was melting the snow behind the tank and it was filling the hole we had created. As my driver pulled back on the throttle, the tracks spun quickly, acting as paddles, pushing all of the water toward the back of the hole. The water rushed back, up and over the top of the tank drenching me with muddy water.

This was really not going well.

Gunning the engine didn't work. Let's try it slow. We dropped the transmission into a low gear and crept forward. We moved a couple of feet and began to slip. My driver slapped it into reverse and we rocked backwards. He repeated this and it reminded me of the Pirate Ship ride at an amusement park. Back and forth we rocked, until we finally crested the lip and were back on the surface of the Earth.

I was back. I arrived at the tank range without further incident. We fired and we fired well. To top it off, a 12 inch long (and 3/4" inch diameter) steel rod broke in the breech of my main gun during the live fire. No more shooting for Doug. Fortunately, I had great tank commanders who liked to shoot.

We ended up scoring well, but some days (like that day, in particular) it isn't your day. But, there always is tomorrow.

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