Category Archives: Military

Fire

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The fields are grey and black. Stumps of trees jut up to the sky with broken and charred husks. Their twisted remains look ancient and frail. Fine trails of smoke waft up from the holes in the ground. Small embers can be seen under roots. Bits of metal, burned black, protrude from the soil. It is unclear as to what the objects were. Their function no longer matters. Calm now blankets the land.

Two days ago, this area was a lush forest covering a large hillside. A heat haze can be seen now running the ridgeline towards a cold grey sky. The year’s cold looks at odds with the surroundings. Boots step through the dark grey soot and leave light grey footprints in their wake. Ash can still be seen drifting down like snowflakes. The only sounds are the slow wind and the crunch of the march. The only smell is of charred earth and cold air. On and up the hill, they walk. No words are spoken. The big guns were the last to speak here; unleashing fury, their words broke over like an avalanche on the land. Their shells found their mark. The message was clear. Scorched Earth Policy: everything burns.

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A Rough Climb

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Depression can be monstrous. It forms like a mountain of impending darkness looming on the horizon. Waking every day to start the climb, it can take a lifetime. Sometimes you can get lost. Some days you may find yourself further down the mountain than you were the day before. The shadows move to block your path. You stumble on the small rocks and debris. The world wishes you to go no further. This can be your daily struggle that no one else sees. You trudge along in hopes of conquering the darkness.

Jimmy Kalitz was a tank mechanic in the Marine Corps in the early 2000’s. He left Fort Knox after completing training to be stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. His first place of residence was with Headquarters and Service Company (H&S). He was a rude, obnoxious, overly confident jerk from New Jersey. He would talk to anyone and frequently make them uncomfortable. It was his way of breaking the ice. His abrasiveness eventually made those around him tougher and meaner. These traits were needed in order to survive the lifestyle.

Life in the barracks at this time was very depressing. The young men were paid very little, made to constantly clean, and stood guard duty day and night. The actions on September 11th caused the unit to go into a defensive posture. Roving guards took to the streets with rifles and man-packs. Men were placed at every gate and armed to protect. This posture caused all of the Marines to be on duty or a constant rotation. The monotony of inspections, weapons checks, general order recitation, and cleaning forced the men into a hole. They sank away as war loomed and the world spun on without them.

Kalitz and the other non-rates witnessed the change. The Marine Corps had not seen war at this scale in years. Most of the upper enlisted had not dealt with the actions taking place before. The young Marines looked to their leadership and found some of them wanting. The sergeant that was in charge of the shift change and inspection of the guards was less than noteworthy. It infuriated the men to be led by such a poor example of a Marine. Constant belittlement and monotony led the men to excessive drinking.

Death became an afterthought. The young men craved war. They only wished to prove themselves in the eyes of their leaders. Nothing was ever good enough. Speeches were made and forgotten as soon as the Marines left the drill field. They only cared about the ones beside them. The boots on the ground that would win the war were all that they knew. The expendable men with names that didn’t matter. Many of the upper levels of leadership never bothered to learn their names.

War came and went. The young men returned with salt in their veins. They didn’t care what their leaders wanted anymore. They had sat long nights in fighting holes with death as their only companion. They had stared out at the lights of cities in flames. Youth was stripped from them. They had been treated like animals, packed in trucks, pushed down the roads, and pointed toward an enemy. They only wished to take their anger and frustration of their lives out on an enemy that rarely ever showed. The pent up rage from ridicule and control faded into anger. Anger at the Corps, their leaders, their homes, their lives, it saturated their bones. The drinking never stopped. They would get together on weekends or weekdays. Each man would drink, fight, dance, and sometimes cry. In the barracks they would tear rooms apart when the beast inside was finally let free. They would bash each other, bruise each other, and then help each other clean up the mess before morning. They plagued Jacksonville, Wilmington, and Myrtle Beach.

The towns were just a distraction. The men came as a volatile mess. Inebriated to the point of blacking out, they would stagger the streets. They didn’t go looking for trouble. They didn’t start fights. They went out just to feel something. To feel alive. To walk away from the dark mountain. To feel normal. A normal that would never come.

For Kalitz:

Kaltiz was never really a friend in the normal sense to me. We beat on each other at a drop of a hat. We hurt, burned, and scarred each other on a daily basis. I wore a scar on my neck for about three years from Kalitz jabbing me with a hot lighter as a joke while I was trapped working in a driver’s hole of a tank. I remember hiding him under his rack one morning. He was too drunk to wake up. I put his shoes in a line in front of him so no one could see him. We all covered for him in formation. He was a funny man. He loved to joke. His morbid humor got us through our days and nights. We all took on a grim aspect after a while. As a motley crew, we took care of each other even though we hurt one another. Through pain we connected. Pain gives us strength but it will wear away at your soul. I can only imagine how weary his soul had become after these many years. He lost his way on his mountain.

Authors Note:

The men from maintenance platoon living the dread life with Kalitz, the darkness is there. You are not expendable. Don’t let it consume you. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything about Jim. He was an asshole. He was our asshole. He wouldn’t have wanted me to trump him up as a Saint. He was a father and a good man. He tried to help other veterans. He asked me to include him in a story a few months ago. He told me to make him famous. I wrote this just for him. He will be missed and he will always be remembered.

No One Left Behind

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In the military, the phrase “no one left behind” is used on a daily bases. It’s engrained and pounded into the heads of every fighting force. It is a core ideology for conduct. Knowing that we will leave no one behind binds us together and creates one of the building blocks to camaraderie. If the powers-that-be told you that they would leave you on the battlefield, not many people would enlist. No one wants to think of their lifeless body alone in a pool of mud and blood. We don’t do that. We stick with each other until the end.

This isn’t always the case. When bodies piled up by the hundreds on beaches or in jungles and war raged all around, people were not always tracked. In the past, people did get left behind. The average citizen would think today that due to modern technology we could overcome that obstacle. It simply isn’t true. In 2003, there was a single U.S Marine M1A1 tank that was left behind in the push into Iraq. The men survived and this is their story.

The tank was designated 2-1 when it was received from the ships in port. The numbers meant that it was the first tank in second platoon. Each platoon has four tanks. Its real numbers were 587-797 which it will always wear. 2-1 was only a temporary name. The crew assigned to the machine began to make it their home. They packed their gear in tight. They put their pink and orange signal panel on top. They strapped large black fuel bladders to the sides of the turret. They painted their company sign for Alpha Company, 2nd Tanks on the sides over the tracks. It was a green block of steel that stood out in the pale colored sand of Kuwait.

They trained in the tank. It was never clear in the beginning that the troops would actually invade Iraq, so they trained. The battalion set up mock lanes and breach sites. The tanks from each company would line up and perform the breach. Days went by and they kept training. Sand storms came and made it harder for the Marines that were use to trees and woodlands. Their kin in 1st Tanks had no such issues. They came from the deserts of California. Engines were being clogged up with sand, their filters needed to be cleaned more often than anticipated. The Marines quickly adapted. The once clean, new, green tanks were now dirty, dusty, and harder to see.

The day came when training was over. The men were excited to finally put all of their years of preparing and training to the test. They breached into Iraq. As the spear of Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Tank Battalion led the way. They were told that there would be around 90 enemy tanks on the other side of the berm. The battalion only had a little over 50 M1A1s.  Their casualties were estimated to be 30%. There were not 90 T72 enemy tanks. There wasn’t much of anything. Unfortunately there was some unexploded ordinance from the Gulf War that happened to be in the area.

2-1 was the one to find that old explosive device. As the tank ran it over, it blew off the track and destroyed a key component. The forward arm was damaged. The tank could be short-tracked to move and get to a better place to make a full repair but that would need a lifting asset in the form of a recovery vehicle. Each company only had one recovery vehicle. It was decided that the vehicles would not be tied up. The commander of 2-1 was also the officer for the platoon, so he switched places with another vehicle commander and took over that tank and crew.  2-1 now became 2-3 in the food chain.  The new commander quickly packed his gear in with his languished crew.  The fight was to the front and the crew was told to stay put. A support element would be along shortly with another recovery vehicle and they would be able to do the repair.

The mechanics watched the tank as they were forced to drive away. The crew watched the long train of vehicles plow by them through the churned up sand. The heavy vehicles had now turned the sand into a fine powder. The sun was bright and there were no clouds. The crew began to work on their tank in hopes that the support element would quickly arrive. They desperately wanted to stay in the fight. The support element never came.

They sat there alone. At one point a jet made a pass over them. The crew scrambled to hold up their pink signal panel. The jet moved on. Eventually a British tank unit came upon them. The crew needed food and water at this point. The British helped them out of their bind. They made what repairs they could and the tank moved again. 2-3 was now a lone American tank limping along with the British towards Basra. Alpha Company had already made it to Basra, secured the bridge and moved on.

The tank battalion pushed fast and hard. It screamed up the highways towards the objectives given from higher. With each objective completed, the distance between them and the damaged tank grew. Through the chaos of war, other tanks were taken out. These tanks were repaired on the spot or towed along. By the time they reached Baghdad, each platoon was missing a tank and the crews from those tanks rode in the trucks used by the unit. These homeless tankers packed in with the support personnel. The battalion moved as one big entity with guns blazing. They became short on food, short on ammunition, and short on water at times. Once they went three days with no food supply. The price for speed to reach the enemy cost them but it had to be done.

The weary Marines took over an Iraqi air defense school in Baghdad. They used it as a repair point. The men were finally able to take a shower made from a busted water main. They used scraps of metal piping and hose to erect the shower head. A month of grim washed away as bullets still flew over their heads. The school had a high wall around it to help in the defense. Little towers were at the gates and the Marines used them to watch the streets. The gate closest to Alpha Company was destroyed. They parked a tank in the gap.

2-3 finally caught up to them in that compound. They had battled their way through the logistical nightmare of a support train. They had to stop and ask random units where their battalion was and usually as they reached that point, the battalion had already moved on. Now they found them and they still wanted to be in the fight. The tank parked at the gate was moved and they were put in the gap. Their mechanic set about fixing all of the issues that had compounded on their journey. It was no longer just the track that was damaged. It was a miracle they had kept the machine together.

I was that mechanic. As I replaced the 1W203-9 cable, we took pop shots from a roof not far away. I was use to being shot at and now the crew of 2-3 was back to enjoy the misery of war with the rest of us. It was good to have those jokers back. They told me stories of jumping form unit to unit and what British rations were like. They British had helped them out so much that they renamed their tank. They took their old name off of the bore-evac on the main gun and painted on “USA/UK” in respect to those that aided them. It must have been a strange sight for other units to see that one tank always pushing forward. We had all come over together and we would all leave together now. 2nd Platoon was the only platoon to end the tour with 4 tanks still standing. It was only through sheer determination that the crew of 2-3 made it. The war machine may have left them behind but they refused to die.

This is a perfect example of the logistical end and bigger picture versus the boots on the ground. Far behind, in tents with computers and as far back as buildings in the States, old men counted beans, bullets, and Band-Aids.  As the machine of war grinded on, they wouldn’t be left out. They wished to fight with their brothers and they did. They had already been marked off of a list somewhere far away. Some one that didn’t even know the number of 2-3 or the names of the crew had counted them out. Yet there they were in the middle of Baghdad. We may never know why they didn’t get picked up by the support element. These four men trudged it out exemplifying the Marine Corps spirit. Computers and gadgets will never replace the determination and heart put forth by men such as these. I am proud to have served with them

Trauma

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Everything today has a label or title. We as a society can’t seem to get passed the labels. It also seems that many of the labels are not fully functional and lack depth into the true issue. A primary example is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The name in itself brings a certain dislike and labeling onto the person diagnosed but in actuality the title is vague. Media has created a false image of this title and in doing so they have hurt many individuals that deserve better.

Through evaluation, I was told I lived in a heightened state of alertness. When simple tasks of minor confrontations were present, it would trigger the “flight or fight response” which in my case was “fight”. I never noticed it because to me I just felt frustrated with things. Anger management classes did nothing to alleviate the problems. Anxiety training provided the most benefits.

If I were to make the thoughts into a tangible object I would be wearing anger armor. I used the anger as fuel and wore it like a protection. I visualized it as actual armor and during the process to help myself I imagined taking it off and putting it on an armor rack. I was told repeatedly that I should not allow others to dictate how I feel. Why should I be angry? It turns out that anger was just a blanket word I had put on my emotions that actually were complex. I felt alone, depressed, betrayed, hurt, weak, and ignored to say a few. I masked these things with anger.

To feel weak was one of my biggest fears so I purged myself constantly by staying hours at the gym or running to burn it out. I pushed myself through injuries and constant pain that I created or from pain that was now going to always be there. Multiple combat tours can leave you with many scars, some you even forget you have until they begin to hurt again. I was told that I may be addicted to pain and that all I was doing was punishing myself for an imagined failure. I believe the process I would routinely go through in hopes to better myself may alone be my real disease

On the outside it would look like I have goals and I am pushing myself to achieve them. It is correct except the goals I set were not achievable. A perfect society does not exist. I cannot run away from the world or think it will all disappear. War had kept me at a heightened state that we called “vigilance”. That tool that kept us alive now can become a monster that consumes your days and nights, giving you no rest.

For my anger, I can see it in my mind. Deep in the back through all of the darkness it sits alone on a rack surrounded by a black steel cage. I am not angry anymore but I also know that one day I may need my armor again so I keep it around. When I look through the cage, I can see through the eyes in the helmet and know that it is silently giving an endless war cry. Even though I have taken it off, I always hear the rage screaming in the back of my mind.

Ambush

This story was based on a real event

First platoon topped the hill making good speed to their next check point. A small bridge lay ahead with what appeared to be a guard shack. The bridge looked weak so the lead tank radioed to only have one vehicle cross at a time. Once two tanks made it across they were immediately hit from all sides with small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades. Trench holes dug in the berms to either side of the road flew open and enemy troops began to pour lead into the two tanks. Personnel carriers with larger guns began to show themselves further down the road, lining up for a shot. The third tank caught up to its brethren and they formed a wedge.

“Gunner, Heat, Tank,” yelled the lead vehicle commander. “Up,” “On the way,” was the reply and at the same moment, all three dragons breathed fire before another word could be heard. Their 120 millimeter guns erupted with hurricane force. The BMPs were opening up their troops doors as the flames engulfed them. The three tanks began to spew coax and 50 caliber rounds into the ground troops. The enemy realized their mistakes and began to make a tactical withdrawal but they did not see their true mistake until it was too late. Two more platoons of fire breathing death had crossed the bridge and were now engaging anything that moved. Hell had erupted and the ground shook as the tank treads moved on. It took mere seconds for all of this to transpire.

“The tanks hit a speed bump up ahead.” said the Staff Sergeant, “So keep your eyes open in case there are any stragglers.” The other three men in the four door humvee acknowledged in unison, “Roger.” They topped the hill and passed the bridge. Some things were still smoking and bodies were everywhere but nothing could have survived. One Lance Corporal said to another, “I will trade you jalapeño cheese for peanut butter.” “Why?” said another. “I have blackberry jam and I want a PB and J but I ate my last peanut butter yesterday.” The Staff Sergeant scanned his area with his rifle out of the window of the passenger side front seat saying, “Gunny said the supply line will catch up to us for resupply possibly tonight. We are three days ahead of most of the support and they can’t keep up.” The convoy passed the burning soviet made transports. Black smoke billowed out of the charred hulls.

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The Marines kept quiet as they came upon a turn in the road. Transport trucks were destroyed sporadically down the highway. The road opened up before them, turning into a four lane. The road seemed to go on forever into the horizon. A city must be close or a town. The enemy was not prepared for what the Corps would unleash upon them. The Marines, however, were prepared for the worst and things weren’t even close to that yet. By nightfall, the tanks had created a defensive perimeter and the weak aluminum vehicles took shelter in the center.
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The troops went about their duties, fixing what was broken, patching what could not be fixed, and setting up a night watch schedule. As some went to sleep, a few kept an eager eye on the distance. Soon they would move again toward the sound of guns. As the enemy feared their arrival, the men smiled for they knew no fear. Tomorrow will bring a new day of obstacles and these men were prepared for the challenge. One day at a time, they pushed forward trusting in each other, fulfilling their purpose. One day at a time, as the world watched, they would make history without even knowing.

(All pictures provided were taken by the Author in Iraq in 2003.)

Thoughts of a Tanker

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It’s cold in here.  I bet it is colder in here than outside.  These metal walls seem to hold in the cold.  Moisture trickles down from the hatches and everything feels wet.  We had kept the motor running, hoping it would help, but it didn’t.  Every time I wake up in my seat, I can see my breath mist in front of me.  I need to scan the area but my breath has fogged up my lens.  I can’t move the turret with guys trying to sleep anyway.  It’s my shift and the loader is coming down out of the commanders’ hatch.  I tell him I’m good and to get some sleep.  It will be dawn soon and we will be rolling.  My bones are stiff and ache as I climb up the hatch.  The loader is making his way to the back deck to get in his bag.  Gunny is back from the battalion briefing and must have just gone to sleep up here too.  I was only out for two hours.  No sleep tonight and what little sleep I have had in the past three days only makes me feel numb and distant.  The radios have traffic coming and going just as they have had for days now.  It feels like a dream but I know that this is all dangerous.  I pick up the binos and take a look out at the distance.  There isn’t much you can see at night but the stars are out so there is a little light.  I can make out the berms and brush. I put the binos down and hear over the net that a fire for effect is about to take place.  The big guns behind us start thumping out rounds.  I watch the white trails slice through the night sky.  I do not pity what the artillery has targeted.  Whatever it is cannot be seen where I am.  These days and nights have drug on and all seem the same now.  We have pounded them, surprised them, and fought them every step.  Yesterday I saw two women walking down the road with bundles on their heads.  A man was with them and he asked us for water.  I gave it to him and motioned to the women with my water bottle.  He had drank most of it but he took it from me again and poured a tiny amount in each of their hands.  It angered us all.  One Marine snatched it back from him and handed it directly to the oldest lady.  They were scared but they drank.  We don’t speak their language but everyone speaks gun.  To think how their culture is compared to ours, crazy it seems.  My shift has only been ten minutes and I have two more hours till day break.  I need to get these boots off for a while so I tug them off and switch my socks.  I put my boots next to the hatch so they can air out.  We must smell like death.  I don’t remember the last time I showered.  I keep looking at my watch.  Only twelve minutes has passed.  Everything is quiet except for the hum radios and the yipping of wild dogs far in the distance.  That is good I guess, with dogs out there that means the enemy isn’t going to be coming at us from that direction.  Some of our support has dug fighting holes and set up a defensive perimeter around our vulnerable assets.  I feel bad for those guys sleeping in the dirt every night or in those wheeled vehicles.  We are low on food so the First Sergeant has said to ration what we have left.  We might not get resupplied for days, who knows?  I have a pack of peanut butter in my jacket; maybe it will help me stay awake.  My foot is falling asleep sitting here.  I need to move around a little.  I put my boots back on and climb up higher in the cupola.  While I’m standing here I need to put my helmet on to keep hearing the radios.  I could care less about battalion tac, company level is where the real orders come from.  I bet our driver is passed out snoring.  Everybody wishes they had his spot to stretch out and sleep.  Sometimes it pays to be the low man on the totem pole.   How much longer is this going to go on?  Twenty minutes into my watch and I feel like this will be eternity.  The wind is picking up.  I can smell the hydraulic fluid and grime from the turret.  It is probably me I smell.  I have fuel and other items staining my suit since before we even rolled out.  I can’t wait for a shower.

 


Photo courtesy of: U.S. Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, perform preparation checks on their M1A1 Abrams prior to a night movement during Exercise Steel Knight 14 aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, 29 Palms, Calif., Dec. 13, 2013. Exercise Steel Knight 14 is a 1st Marine Division exercise conducted to successfully demonstrate the capability to exercise command and control over forces in a distributed environment with long range movement, while conducting offensive and defensive maneuver and operations integrated with supporting arms. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Luis A. Vega 1st Marine Division Combat Camera/ Released)