A comment someone made to me yesterday reminded me of this story which I wrote about years ago. It took place in the summer of 1994, when I was a Private First Class in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado as a Mechanized Infantryman in the 4th Infantry Division. My job at the time was as a driver on an M2A1 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. This was my first deployment off-post to the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, a sprawling grassland in the southeast corner of Colorado, and one of the only places in the country where the Army could conduct battalion-level maneuvers. Our mission was to train for another conflict in Southwest Asia, where combat vehicles spread out a couple hundred meters apart, meaning your battle formations take up miles of space.
It was my first big FTX (Field Training Exercise), or field problem, as we called them, as a Bradley crewmember. Previously, I had been a “dismount.” These are what you think of as your regular infantry footsoldiers, who ride into battle in the crew compartments of their Bradleys and then hop out to fight on foot, being supported by the massive firepower the Bradleys can bring to the fight with their TOW-2 missile launchers, M242 Bushmaster 25mm chain gun, and M240C coaxially-mounted machine gun.
They can be handy to have along in a firefight.
That’s how Mr. Bradley says, “Knock it the fuck off.”
Anyway, I wasn’t thrilled about being a driver, mostly because it involves becoming a junior mechanic, and that was not what I thought I had signed up for. There’s always something to fix on military vehicles, and Preventive Maintenance Checks and Services (PMCS) are the bane of every soldier assigned to a vehicle crew. B-O-R-I-N-G. Plus, there was a bit of a stigma attached to being a crewmember. Sure, you got to call the poor dismounts who had to eventually get out and walk some nifty derogatory names like “crunchies” and GIBs (Guys In the Back). But the names dismounts had for crewmembers were slightly less funny, and a lot more hurtful.
But as I was about to find out, military life, even for Bradley drivers, was not all work. And sometimes, you just have to cut loose and have a little fun. Stupid fun.
And so I present to you a little essay titled “We Were Soldiers Once… And Dumb.”
Four M2A1 Bradley Fighting Vehicles sat perched at the top of a low ridgeline facing east, the rumbling of their Cummins turbodiesels floating out over the seemingly endless prairie of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. The day had been long, the work hard, and the food uninspiring. The soldiers of First Platoon had been out there for three weeks already and wouldn’t be going home for another week. The prospect of getting back to our assembly area early only to settle into the tedium of fifty-percent security, scanning the same sector of featureless terrain over and over until first call the next morning was hardly a motivating thought. We were bored and we knew there was only one thing we could do to ease the pain.
It was time to destroy some government property.
And we were off! At the signal given over the platoon frequency, all four vehicles started racing for home. I was a Private First Class and the driver of “Red Two,” the platoon leader’s wing track. As a precaution, I had lowered my seat fully into the driver’s compartment, buckled my seatbelt and locked the hatch. The last thing I wanted was my head and shoulders sticking out of the vehicle if it rolled over. The noise-canceling headphones incorporated into my CVC helmet didn’t quite cancel out the bitching from the six dismounted infantrymen, or “crunchies,” in the back (We called them “crunchies” because that’s the noise their bodies make when the Bradley’s treads run over them). I had just shut off their only source of fresh air and most of their light for what was going to be a long, bumpy ride.
Fifty miles per hour may not seem very fast to you, but when you’re driving over broken ground and your only view is through a 2-inch by 4-inch periscope, it feels like Warp Factor Nine. We were nosing ahead of the pack when something zipped across my field of view. We had flushed a pronghorn antelope.
“Hard left!” yelled SSG Gibbons, my Bradley Commander (BC). “Get his ass!”
Friends, if you’ve never thrown a 33-ton tracked combat vehicle into a bootlegger’s turn, you’ve missed one of life’s true pleasures. We jinked back and forth, trying to keep the antelope in front of us, neither gaining nor losing ground as we bled off speed with each turn. I could STILL hear muffled cursing through my headphones and over the scream of the engine one foot to my right (and over the sound of crunchies and loose equipment being tossed around in the back).
The pronghorn soon grew tired of this game, straightened his course, and turned on the jets. He quickly pulled ahead, bounding over a thicket of low vegetation. I jammed the oversized gas pedal to the floorboards, eager to catch up. My stomach dropped as we crashed through the thicket that the antelope had so easily leaped across and I saw that it concealed a dry creekbed that we had no hope of clearing.
My shout of “Hang on!” mingled with the cries of “Stop!” and “Oh, shit!” coming from the BC and gunner, both of whom were standing on their seats, the upper halves of their bodies fully exposed outside the turret. The prow of the Bradley dipped and then slammed into the far wall of the creekbed, bringing us from 30 mph to zero instantly. I banged off every hard surface in the driver’s compartment (there are no soft ones) and felt something crash into my seatback.
Quickly, I slammed shut the fuel cutoff and yelled into the intercom to check if my crew was okay – there was no answer. Oh, shit, I’ve killed them, I thought. When not scanning for targets, gunners and BCs typically stand on their seats, with their bodies exposed out of the top of the turret’s two hatches from the waist up. They had to have been launched from the vehicle and were now bleeding out on the prairie above us. Broken necks were a definite possibility. Oh, please God, let them be okay.
With shaking hands I dropped the ramp and popped open my hatch, flooding the vehicle’s interior with light. I quickly noticed two things: What had crashed into my seatback was one of the crunchies, who had been thrown through the “hell hole” all the way to the driver’s seat, a tunnel on the left side of the turret about six feet long and a foot wide. He was okay, but seemed a bit upset with me. I also noticed the intercom cable had been pulled loose from my helmet, and as I took it off, I heard groans and cursing.
I ran around to the rear of the vehicle and saw crunchies pulling themselves out of the missile rack, picking themselves off the floor, untangling their equipment and limbs from each other and all of them wanting to know “WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU DOING, ASSHOLE?!!!” Ignoring their complaints, I clambered over them and drew the turret shield door open.
My gunner and BC were sitting on the floor of the turret, clutching their bruised stomachs and laughing like lunatics, tears rolling down SSG Gibbons’ face.
Miraculously, no one was hurt. Even better, none of the civilian envirofags that were constantly following us around during training had been in the area. God forbid we leave a track in the grass or bruise one of their precious fucking trees – we’d get reamed out and our unit would get fined for the damage, which comes out of the training budget. Fortunately, we were able to back up and climb the wall of the gully, sparing us the embarassment of needing to be rescued by one of our sister tracks and their tow cable. We drove back to our laager at a more sedate pace, and I listened with pleasure to SSG Gibbons’ opinions on the deficiencies of my driving skills, observational habits and parental lineage. If he can still bitch, it means he’s still breathing. I’ll take it.
Years later, I look back and think that if the taxpayers only knew what dumb shit soldiers can get up to, they’d be calling for even deeper defense cuts, even as the War on Terror continues into it’s eleventh year. Hell, some of the more detached from reality of the liberal pantywaist set are bellowing for just that. But I think about our boys Over There, and I can’t help but hope that in between the long stretches of boredom and the brief moments of fear and blood, that they get to enjoy at least of few minutes of balls-to-the-wall, high-speed, reckless fun. And if they happen to break a few things while trying to drive their Bradley, Stryker or Humvee up some camel’s ass, so what? Put it on my tab and tell ‘em I said be careful, and thanks.
That’s taxpayer money well spent.