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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

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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.)