Confessions Of A Tank Commander

Mandatory Fun
A soldier checks the battery box and connections on his M1A1 Abrams tank after gunnery qualifications on the Blackwell multi-use range on Fort Hood May 28, 2013.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar

Welcome to Confessions Of, a weekly series where Task & Purpose’s James Clark solicits hilarious, embarrassing, and revealing stories from troops and vets about their job, billet, or a tour overseas.


World War II was arguably the heyday of tank warfare; however, tankers have continued to serve on the frontlines in the Global War on Terror, particularly during the early years of the Iraq War.

While infantry provides the boots on the ground for combat operations, armor, and in particular, tanks, bring the muscle.

In addition to the main gun, which is a devastating cannon that can level a city block with ease, the M1 Abrams boasts a host of other weapons, including a coaxial machine gun, the loader’s machine gun, and the tank commander’s .50-cal.

The Army’s M1 Abrams is typically crewed by four men: the driver, the gunner, the ammunition loader, and a tank commander. Because of the confined quarters of a tank, its crews are notoriously tight knit, and like any unit that spends endless hours together in a small space, they develop their own unit rituals, traditions, and have unique outlets for dealing with the day-to-day stressors of military life.

In 2006, while deployed to Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, east of Baghdad, Iraq, Army Capt. Aaron Doft was in charge of 15 other soldiers and four M1A2 SEP tanks — SEP meaning systems enhancement package.

There’s A Fully Restored WWII Sherman Tank On eBay Right Now »

Task & Purpose spoke with Doft about what it’s like to have the awesome power of a tank at your fingertips and what exactly goes on inside while you’re out on a mission.

What was the day-to-day life like for you guys as tankers, and how much time did you spend in the tanks?

Our daily missions varied fairly broadly. We had missions that were as short as four hours, where we’d leave the base and spend four hours in the tank, asserting our presence, or dissuading the enemy from performing any actions that would be harmful to American men or allied forces present. So that was the short end, which is four hours on patrol.

The longest mission we had where we were in the tanks for the duration of the mission was 36 hours.

Tell me what that’s like, 36 hours in a tank.

For that particular mission, it was a battalion-wide operation. So we had heavy infantry, light infantry, and we had tankers as well as ordnance disposal, working dogs, female engagement teams — it was the full spectrum of operations for this particular mission. But, the tanks for our part were on security.

A 36-hour mission does make bodily functions, and the difficulties they provide, really come into play. In these cases, we definitely carried more than enough, or I’ll say enough water and electrolyte drinks, and whenever we had to relieve ourselves we would of course use the empty containers for micturation and sometimes, MRE bags for defecation.

Yeah. Not to just focus on that, but I’ve got to ask: How do you guys keep cool and maintain the right attitude if some guy has to take a dump in an enclosed container with three other guys? Is it a point of humor, do you laugh it off?

It is. Whenever the actual defecation part came into play, it was a source of humor. Lots of jokes at the perpetrator’s expense. Usually involving comments about what he had eaten earlier that day, or the texture, perhaps of MREs, and the product, should we say.

What made it worse was inside the tank: The temperature inside the tank really really exacerbated the smell and increased the pressure. Because, I found out inside the tank, thermometers, the digital type, stop at 150 degrees.

Wow.

So imagine being in, as you said, an enclosed container with three other guys, at 150 degrees with bags of poop.

I don’t know if I want to, that sounds horrible, man.

Yeah, that was a good time.

Do you ever get irritated with the fact that you're stuck in a tiny space with three other guys? How do you keep the right attitude?

I mean, that’s the real question, isn’t it?

Everyone knows their place within the tank. Everyone knows where they fit within the hierarchy, that’s not something that bears repetition, that’s not something that bears reinforcement, so that’s not a source of conflict.

Any time you’re living in close quarters with other people, other people with different personalities, from different parts of the country, some people from outside the country … everyone comes with their own experience, their own personality, and you just learn how to communicate to best amplify cooperation and reduce conflict. This is a way that a person can be an effective leader, but it’s also a primary way that people just get along in general.

Were you ever in direct combat operations as a tank commander?

Yes, we were in direct contact for more days than we were not. We would take pot shots and snipers, I’d say several times a week. I’m only going to talk about while we were out conducting operations, not while we were sitting on the Forward Operating Base — on the FOB we received indirect fire almost constantly — but outside the wire we were engaged with small arms fire, usually disorganized, no large-scale ambushes, usually. Just individuals engaging us. There were several engagements during which we received [rocket-propelled grenade] fire, and one incident I remember pretty well, because the RPG passed me by about three feet when I was standing next to my vehicle. So that was exciting.

So yeah, small-arms fire, RPGs, roadside bombs, and all of these things were pretty common.

How about during training and work-ups, can you tell me a bit about firing the main gun from inside the tank?

Being inside the tank when the main gun fires: It’s beautiful. The adrenaline just takes over and fills your entire bloodstream because what you’re dealing with is an explosion less than two feet away from you that is sufficiently powerful to rock a 72-ton vehicle and if we didn’t have our sprockets engaged, so the breaks on, firing a main gun will propel the tank backward.

Just knowing that kind of power is at your fingertips, knowing that kind of power is exploding within two feet of your face, I mean my blood is going just thinking about it. It’s a beautiful experience. It’s something I’ll cherish. I’ll take it with me everywhere I go for the rest of my life, just knowing I was able to participate in such an activity.

There is another couple of related experiences. One is being the tank commander, and sometimes you have your head outside the hatch when the main gun goes off. The shock wave from the main gun when it goes over you and expands out in that spherical pattern, rattles your teeth. It blows all of the hair on your face back. I wore a mustache, I always wore a mustache, so it would blow my mustache back and flatten down my eyebrows. That’s another beautiful thing.

And again, standing outside of the tank, the concussion will almost knock you over. It will certainly knock the wind out of you. There is just so much power involved in propelling these projectiles.

It’s an amazing feeling. Unsurpassed. Unmatched. Devastatingly awesome.

Are there any sort of unit rituals, or things that only tankers would do, or only tankers know about?

Well there are a couple of things that only tankers can do, say, for instance when the new platoon leader or the new company commander arrives and you’re going to the tank range to do the qualification of the main gun. They’ll take the cover of that freshly arrived officer and they’ll put it in the main gun of the tank, then they’ll load the main gun round. So when the tank commander says, “Fire,” the tank commander fires his own cover downrange.

Now, the cover doesn’t go downrange because it’s vaporized in the gun tube, but it’s fun to say, “He sent his own cover downrange.”

That’s great.

Another one is, also for new arrivals, usually for the lower-enlisted — unless officers and senior NCOs really feel like being a part of the unit and endearing themselves to the men — when they arrive, they’re accosted and duct-taped to the main gun tube, which is then elevated and the tank turret is spun around until the new arrival vomits, or starts giggling too much for anybody else to have fun.

Did you ever participate?

Absolutely. Of course. It’s part of the culture, really. It’s a unique ability. It’s a unique set of abilities that tankers have. The infantry, they get to wear their blue chords on their dress uniform, they get their Combat Infantry Badges. Tankers, we get to have fun.

"It's kind of like the equivalent of dropping a soda can into canyon and putting on a blindfold and going and finding it, because you can't just look down and see it," diver Jeff Goodreau said of finding the wreck.

The USS Eagle 56 was only five miles off the coast of Maine when it exploded.

The World War I-era patrol boat split in half, then slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The Eagle 56 had been carrying a crew of 62. Rescuers pulled 13 survivors from the water that day. It was April 23, 1945, just two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

The U.S. Navy classified the disaster as an accident, attributing the sinking to a blast in the boiler room. In 2001, that ruling was changed to reflect the sinking as a deliberate act of war, perpetuated by German submarine U-853, a u-boat belonging to Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine.

Still, despite the Navy's effort to clarify the circumstances surrounding the sinking, the Eagle 56 lingered as a mystery. The ship had sunk relatively close to shore, but efforts to locate the wreck were futile for decades. No one could find the Eagle 56, a small patrol ship that had come so close to making it back home.

Then, a group of friends and amateur divers decided to try to find the wreck in 2014. After years of fruitless dives and intensive research, New England-based Nomad Exploration Team successfully located the Eagle 56 in June 2018.

Business Insider spoke to two crew members — meat truck driver Jeff Goodreau and Massachusetts Department of Corrections officer Donald Ferrara — about their discovery.

Read More Show Less
(CIA photo)

Before the 5th Special Forces Group's Operational Detachment Alpha 595, before 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's MH-47E Chinooks, and before the Air Force combat controllers, there were a handful of CIA officers and a buttload of cash.

Read More Show Less

The last time the world saw Marine veteran Austin Tice, he had been taken prisoner by armed men. It was unclear whether his captors were jihadists or allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad who were disguised as Islamic radicals.

Blindfolded and nearly out of breath, Tice spoke in Arabic before breaking into English:"Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus."

That was from a video posted on YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012, several weeks after Tice went missing near Damascus, Syria, while working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and the Washington Post.

Now that Tice has been held in captivity for more than seven years, reporters who have regular access to President Donald Trump need to start asking him how he is going to bring Tice home.

Read More Show Less

"Shoots like a carbine, holsters like a pistol." That's the pitch behind the new Flux Defense system designed to transform the Army's brand new sidearm into a personal defense weapon.

Read More Show Less

Sometimes a joke just doesn't work.

For example, the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service tweeted and subsequently deleted a Gilbert Gottfried-esque misfire about the "Storm Area 51" movement.

On Friday DVIDSHUB tweeted a picture of a B-2 bomber on the flight line with a formation of airmen in front of it along with the caption: "The last thing #Millenials will see if they attempt the #area51raid today."

Read More Show Less