Musings of a Tanker-Joining Up

Joined the army to get money for college. Wanted to join tanks because my great Uncle10479534_10206333941729168_1298285649498770301_n Matt Mattes died in Holland as a tank crewman. It was taboo. I was also looking to drink, see the world. I always knew I would serve, as almost every generation of my family has served our country as far back as the Civil War.

My great Uncle died in the fields of France. My great great-great-grandfather lost a leg in the Civil War as a Union Soldier. My daughter’s great-great-grandfather served in the horse cavalry in the early 1900s. I still have his saddle. I thought I would join the Navy, as had my Grandfather, a purple heart recipient Navy Corpsman at Guadalcanal.

My father served about Navy destroyers in Vietnam. He bombed the shores and supply lines. His destroyer was directly behind the Maddox and Turner Joy when they were hit with North Vietnamese gun fire. He saw the damage. It happened.

My uncle followed up by flying as a navigator on the EA-6B Prowler on the U.S.Kitty Hawk and America in the 70s. The Mattes and Osborne name have been well represented in the military. I almost forgot my three uncles on mom’s side. My Uncle Don Hegewald served in bomb disposal in Korea. My Uncle Don and Gerald, my mom’s older brothers, both served along the border in Korea, as the Cold War began to freeze.

My Cousins have also honorably served, Laura an Army babe, Jim Marchand and his brother Richard. And finally, my own brother Dan, who proudly served in the First Gulf War. It was my turn and I was extremely proud to serve. The older I get, the more proud I am of my young self as a young man. And I accept the pain and memories as well as the best memories a young soldier could ever have.

They were the best of times… they were the worst of times… (sorry, couldn’t resist. wink emoticon). I joined tanks in 1985 and was sent to M1 Abrams school the month following BASIC as they were no longer sending M60 tanker recruits to Germany. I had been guaranteed Germany, so another month of school it was. I went. It turned out pretty cool though, as I got my initial designation as an M60 19E tanker. It’s just for bragging rights…. who had been on the most tank variations. I ended up learning the M60A1, M60A3, the M1 and my unit tanks, the M1IP and the M1A1. The M1IP (Improved Performa nice) was the Corvette of the group. It was not a tank, but a killing machine. The 60 was a TANK… in every regard… but the M1 could withstand direct hits from any enemy ordinance not fired from a helicopter. I knew of two incidents where the tank went over 100 mph. I don’t know. With the governor on my last tank, Crazy Train, I got it up to almost 70, before having the MPs block the highway we weren’t supposed to be on…. (Long Story… see Stealing Crazy Train).

Author with Joseph Peniska and Big Rob.

Author with Joseph Peniska and Big Rob.

I was sent to Germany in February 86, a few weeks before the Berlin disco bombing where American Troops were killed by Libyan terrorists. I was assigned to the 3rd battalion, 33rd Armor (later reflagged the 4th Bn, 8th Cavalry) in the 3rd Armored Division’s 3rd Brigade. It was the world’s most powerful land unit in history, before or since. It was the first Brigade in the Army to hit the Soviet 18 tank divisions on the other side of the Fulda Gap, east of Frankfurt.

I served as tank crewman, company clerk, commander’s jeep and tank driver. I left to serve in the 24th Infantry Division (later reflagged 3rd Infantry in 1992 or so). I was assigned to the 1st Battalion 64th Armor. I served as a tank crewman and Charlie company Armored.

In 1989, I left the Army to attend the University of Oregon. I graduated with a double major in business and marketing. My focus was on strategic corporate management and international business. I have now worked in the mortgage industry for 20 years. I lost many friends and soldiers while serving and I have endured PTSD for 28 years.

I just recently accepted that the anger, depression, loss of memory and other issues are in fact related from my service. For many years I believed I was a drunk and worthless person. My friends and family often told me so. I finally hit bottom after my best friend from day one in BASIC took his life. He could no longer handle the memories… the pain.

None of us really care much about living or dying. We’ve seen it on tanks. Too much, but it is unavoidable. I would never change a thing about my life, because that is what has made me who I am today. Sometimes you learn compassion and empathy through seeing death, and how silly it is to chase after the things most American’s desire. We are fiercely protective of the innocent.

Tank crewmen do not come out of their service OK. Ever. We think we do, because we are tough, but losing friends out of such a tight knit group of 40 men or so is the rule of the day. Grab some beer when you roll into the motor pool after the loss, hit the barracks, and drink the beer that the platoon sergeant has left us. That is how you deal with it. Get your ass back on the tank tomorrow.

One time we were preparing to turn in our tank at NTC and a soldier was killed directly behind the tank. Men were there within seconds and the medic trak arrived quickly. There was nothing else to do but CHARLIE MIKE (Continue Mission). We had a plane to catch back to Ft. Stewart and it was leaving with or without us. For a few hours we got the tank ready for turn in while making jokes to hide the pain., Had to function. It’s just a thing. Shit happens. We never got to know the kid. New cruit wrench (Mechanic) working the crane on the 88. Dropped a heavy track end connector on his head. Went right through the helmet. Slow motion.

Just like the time one of my best friends and roommates was pulled out of a tank after having his head crushed by the turret… slow motion… purple smoke… men not running fast enough….MEDIVAC chopper…… and a sergeant not really seeming to give a shit. He lived. We found out the next day…. and that was a GOOD gunnery exercise.

We all lived…. And the times were good. The beer was warm and the girls wouldn’t look my way. DAMN these young looking genes!

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