One Day In The Life Of an Army Tanker
I opened my eyes. Everything looked bleary on the inside of that personal carrier. The radios stared down at me like a cat peeking in the window on a dark night. The barely adequate interior light partially lit the area on the other side, gear tossed about like a teenagers bedroom. I slowly sat up out a sleep, the warm air from the heater hitting my face. I bent over to keep from hitting my head on the rack above me. The cold aluminum floor boards met my feet and I put my boot back on.
The vehicle commander lowered his seat, turned around and half looked at me, his Combat Vehicle Helmet slightly twisted on his head, the cord pulling on it, the mic covering his lips.
“You all right?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
Earlier I had, what felt like a migrant headache, that sudden tightness in the neck, the dull pain, barely able to bear. I had put the gunner of my tank in the commander’s hatch and I waded the 200 meters in the snow to the medic track to get some relief. After a quick diagnosis, he gave me a couple of pills and said, sleep. I did; for two hours.
When I awoke, I felt the movement of the vehicle, something you learn to recognize when you have been on these steel monsters for many years.
“Your platoon moved out an hour ago. You’ll have to go with us.”
“OK,” I responded.
Sergeant Smith was my favorite medic. He used a unique procedure on my back. He had helped me with a muscle spasm I got, while working at our base camp on the Czechoslovakian border. We were there, involved in monitoring the “2-K Zone, a two kilometer space on both sides of the border.
“Here, let me try this,” he had said.
He massaged the area with an icepack and the pain was gone.
That was a few years ago, many more miles, and other problems medics are trained to treat. Now I was in his medic vehicle, a converted mortar personal carrier, about to move out.
I slipped both arms into my hooded parka, zipped it up, flipped on the fur lined hood, stood up on the aluminum deck, holding on to the sides of the open hatch.
The top was designed to open from the middle to the outside. That way, the crew could fire their mortars from within.
I heard a ratchet sound, as the spring-loaded commander’s seat thrust him up into the hatch.
“Move out,” he barked to the driver.
The bitter wind ruffled the fir on my parka, the cold wind- pushed snow stung my face. I glanced around. Frosty snow laden trees cast long shadows on the surface of the snow. It must be getting late, I thought.
I braced myself in the open hatch, my body half out, my arms resting on the top. I could see the backs of the helmets of the driver and commander, and the barely visible road up ahead.
We started up Suicide Hill. The three-hundred meter incline was famous for a fifty-foot drop off to the left, a deadly terrain feature, one that caused trouble for many a tanker. Just yesterday, one our tanks had three feet of track, on the left rear, hanging off the edge, the commander and crew still inside, helpless.
The icy-packed ground barely provided a gripping surface for the tracks of the twenty-ton vehicle. It would grab here and there, and then slip, the diesel engine racing, tracks spinning, until it caught hold and moved again, jerking ahead like a teenager first learning how to drive.
As we worked our way up that hill, I could sense us sliding to the left. It was an eerie feeling, one which you get when you command a tank, a gut feeling that something is not right, based on years of commanding a tank. We were playing with the edge. I could see ahead, the young private frantically working the steering levers, the carrier slowly drifting to the left.
He jerked his head around and yelled something to the doc. He had a look of helplessness, a look of horror, as if someone stepped out of the shadows on Halloween night.
For a moment, time slowed. That tight, clutching feeling in the pit of my stomach, the feeling you get when time and events are out of your hands, the feeling that told me we were going over that drop off, and there was nothing I could do. My breath froze in my chest. I felt like I was glued to the metal of the track, fixed, unable to move.
Somewhere in that horrible instant in time, the vehicle stopped. I held my breath. I slowly looked around and waited to see what came next. Not wanting to, but knowing I had to, I peeked over the left side of the vehicle. We were a foot from the edge. I could see the trees and bushes fifty feet below. I froze in place, still holding my breath. My heart thumped in my chest. Some survival force deep within me grabbed me and moved me to the right side of the open hatch. I gripped the edge with my gloved hands, swung one leg over the side followed by the other, half sliding, half dropping the six feet to the frozen ground, my parka scraping the side of the track as I went. I leaned over, hands on knees.
Very carefully, I sidestepped to the other side of the icy road, my legs wobbling. I knelt down and placed both gloved hands on the ground, my arms shaking. I glanced back at the track.
“Move over, I heard”
The vehicle engine rev up again. I looked up and over to the left. Sergeant Smith had replaced the young driver and had nursed the vehicle back to the middle of the road, the tracks slipping, the vehicle lurching forward as it moved up the icy hill.
I found the shallow ditch on my side of the road and stayed in it. I walked slowly up the hill, one foot carefully placed in front of the other, deliberate steps, safe steps, step I had control over. When I reached the top, I found the vehicle idling. I made it to the back of the track, reached for the handle, and opened the back door. A blast of warm air hit me. I climbed in, turned around, and closed the rear hatch. I reached up and swung open the top hatch, pushed it down, and locked it.
“You alright?” the sergeant, looked back and yelled over the sound of the engine. “I don't know.” I responded.
He smiled and grabbed the steering levers and gunned the motor.
I glanced down at the private, sitting on the crew seat, his head was bobbing back forth, the result of long lost sleep. I zipped my parka all the way up, placed the fir-trimmed hood over my head, and put on my gloves. I held the edge of the hatch and braced myself with my legs. I was numb - from the cold and shaken from what had just happened.
I could barely see the shadows. The sun was setting. Light snowflakes melted as they hit my face, the wind ruffling the fur.
I heard the roar of the diesel engines as I stared straight ahead, blackout lights of the vehicles forward of us bobbing up and down, slowly working our way toward the assembly area
I was deep in thought, the kind of thought you get when you’ve just been through a significant emotional event, an event that grabs hold of you, an event that doesn’t let you go. It stayed with me until we reached the assembly area. There, I found my tank and rejoined may crew.
As I recall it now, it is a fading memory, one of the many recorded in my experience of the nine years serving in Germany; this one in 1983.