Medal of Honor recipient Clint Romesha is well known for his actions defending Combat Outpost Keating but not so much about how he got his start in the U.S. Army. Before he was a cavalry scout, Romesha was a tanker who sent rounds downrange during his deployment to Iraq in 2003.
“Not too many people know because they think I was only a cav scout, which I did most of my time in scouts,” Romesha said. “Out of the 11 years and eight months, it was almost seven of those years in cav, but the first five were all on tanks in Germany, starting before 9/11 kicked off.”
He was first stationed in Vilseck, Germany, with the 1st Infantry Division, and later, with the 2nd Infantry Division out of Camp Casey, South Korea. The tankers’ mindset and training were a little different because it was during the tail end of the Soviet Union. But some things just don’t change with a tank crew and the culture they created.
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Like not eating an apricot on a tank, which is something Romesha described as “bad juju and a superstition thing.” It’s something tankers (and many other armored vehicles or Assault Amphibious Vehicles personnel) are terrified to even utter out loud, often calling them “forbidden fruits or A-fruits.”
In World War II, and the conflicts that followed, any crew holding apricots seemed to break down or get blown up. But it’s not just superstitions that tankers worry about.
How tankers deal with danger close gas
Life as a tanker is not easy and can appear ludicrous to the average person. Long shifts in a metal box without air conditioning, proximity to a bunch of dudes without showers for days if not weeks, and Meals, Ready, to Eat (MREs) side effects of the gastrointestinal type.
Add the heat of a desert, and you have a spicy combination of day-to-day factors to contend with in a small metal box with four sweaty tankers. Romesha said they had a fix for any reckless release of human biological warfare within the cabin.
His tank crew would turn on the tank’s dedicated Nuclear, Biological, Chemical system, which pressurizes the internal cabin while purifying the air. That system doubled as poor-performing air conditioning, though it’s not like the air conditioning in your car.
Romesha said a fart wasn’t the only bad smell in the tank.
“I mean, it already smelled,’ Romesha said. “Hydraulic fluid, JP8, and fucking corn nut feet, you know. A tank just never really smells good. It always had that pungent smell of every odor combined all at once.”
When they can’t exit the tank for extended periods, tankers will typically implement a large Gatorade bottle or something like it for #1, whereas #2 can be a bit trickier. Romesha said a tank provides the luxury of a built-in backrest. Paired with an empty wooden .50 caliber ammo box and a trash bag, you have yourself a built-in toilet.
“Then, as you’re fucking cruising by the porta john whenever you get a chance, you’d throw your fucking Dookie bag into it on a drive,” Romesha said with a laugh.
Whether there are dookie bags on board or the perpetual stink of a tank, tankers aren’t typically worried about that stuff in a combat setting.
First round fired downrange as a gunner
Romesha’s early years as a tanker were spent training in Soviet block-era tactics. His first duty station was Germany, where his crew trained for an impending Soviet-led invasion. Then, he was stationed in Korea, where they trained for a potential North Korean invasion.
So when his unit was tapped for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they had quite a change in environment. Romesha’s unit was attached to the 1-506th Airborne Infantry and a unit from the US Marine Corps. Romesha will never forget the speech a full-bird colonel delivered to them all before invading Iraq from Kuwait.
“He basically said, ‘Hey, look tankers. I don’t give a fuck if some [use your imagination] shoots at you with one AK round,” Romesha said. “‘You have a 120-millimeter main gun, you better fucken put him down. Doesn’t matter if you hit them with 5.56 or a 120, fucking dead is dead.’”
The colonel’s ‘rah-rah’ speech had Romesha fired up because he was a gunner. A tank crew has four positions: a tank commander, gunner, loader, and driver. Romesha was responsible for maintaining and firing the tank’s main turret’s gun.
Romesha’s crew was a part of the mechanized infantry that covered a sector of MSR Michigan, a thoroughfare opened by allied forces in the Ramadi to Fallujah area of Iraq.
Tank crews rotated in 8-hour day and night coverage shifts in their assigned sector of MSR Michigan. Not much happened on their night shifts, but about a month and a half into the deployment, Romesha’s crew was put on day shifts, and things got spicy.
While on patrol, they had a near miss with a 155mm artillery shell rigged up as an IED. They had spotted the trigger man and his fellow bad guys in time. But, they had a sabot round loaded into the main gun in preparation for a fight with armor.
Instead of losing the trigger man while reloading, Romesha followed the colonel’s orders.
“The sabot round is like a depleted uranium lawn dart. It goes super fast, and it’s really only for shooting at armor, but that’s what we had in the tube,” Romesha said. “So, instead of taking that out and putting an antipersonnel or [High Explosive] round in, I just popped that mother fucker in their direction.”
That was Romesha’s first round he fired as a gunner in a tank crew. That deployment differed slightly from the training he had experienced in Germany and South Korea. But, they still implemented tried and true tactics dating back to WWII.
About three months into his deployment, the light infantry and armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) were getting hammered by IEDs. So the tactic was to have an M1 Abrams tank and a Bradly Fighting Vehicle paired up to cover sectors.
Back on nights, Romesha was the TC, and he had a “hodge-podge” crew of misfits. He had a forward observer as the loader because he could double down on the radios. His old driver was the gunner and a cook he had trained up to be the driver. The Bradley crew, whose callsign was Baker 2-6, was paired up with Romesha in an overwatch position.
“I would find a nice little area that I looked unassuming. Made the tank look like a big fat happy pig, wanting to do nothing but fucking sleep for the night,” Romesha said. “We played a little cat and mouse game of not really scanning, not getting up out of the hatches, and would occasionally fire the tank up to charge the batteries.”
The trick worked as a crew of insurgents snuck up to the side of Romesha’s tank. Baker 2-6 radioed Romesha’s crew to let them know they had “players in the game.” Instead of firing on the insurgents with their coaxial 7.62 machine gun, they fired their 25mm M242 Bushmaster chain gun at the group, trying to set up an IED at the side of the tank.
That tactic worked, eliminating the bad guys before they could blow the IED.
Tanker crew shenanigans
Tankers share unique bonds that are only forged in the stressful and close environment they work in. Like other combat arms cultures, tankers have a subculture separate from the overall military — and with that comes shenanigans.
Almost everyone had a nickname. For example, ‘Radar,’ was the nickname of one of Romesha’s first loaders because he had large ears. In line with the crude humor of tankers, their pranks were just as good, if not better.
They’d rub Kiwi boot polish on the Burrell pad on a different tank’s gunner’s sight. So when the gunner looked through their sight, they’d walk away with a massive black smudge across their forehead.
Sometimes, they acquired tools from rival tank crews. Each tanker had their own maintenance responsibilities, and tools would break all the time. So, they’d snag tools from other tank crews when they weren’t deployed.
“When a fucking tool broke, you’d take it to another tank and throw your broken piece of shit in there, and you’d take their tool. Stealing from each other happened all the time, and it took you forever to get replacement tools,” Romesha said. “There was always that one tank with an E-4 Mafia specialist loader or a driver who was just very adept at acquiring non-broken equipment.”
On deployment, the tool acquisition slowed since they had a “community pool” of tools they all shared. The mechanics they had with them on deployment were able to order replacement tools a lot faster than the tankers could while stateside.
Another joke is an age-old tradition for the tankers. New lieutenants getting checked off on the operation of the tank or any other officers new to the crew went through an initiation ritual. The other crew members would sneak the new officer’s helmet — which tankers don’t wear often — and get it to the gunner.
So when the officer was qualifying as a tank commander, the loader placed the officer’s helmet on the sabot round and sent it downrange.
“That was always a rite of passage that the lieutenants always talked with the new officers,” Romesha said. “Then it came down to whether the new officer had the bragging rights hitting the target or not with a Kevlar cover at the tip of a fucking sabot round.”
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