The Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center on Pomerado Road is a large cube of brick. Inside, Marines and sailors hustle and bustle, and the atmosphere is casual. A young woman Marine takes me to Lt. Col. Steve Chambers. Tall, lean, tanned —quintessential Marine officer —Chambers wastes no words.
"I'm a tanker. I teach the reserves. I'm the main teacher. Each of our reserve units has regular officers and NCOs with ’em that assist them in managing their training. Generally, any reservist has had some active duty. They drill, one weekend a month, two or three days. And for two weeks we go to Twentynine Palms or something, and we go out for a major training exercise."
I tell him about my friend Ivan Little, who just returned from the Gulf war.
"Right," he says. "With B-Company. We trained 'em. Bravo Company was attached to a tank battalion in the 2nd Marine Division. The job of the reserves is to augment active units, to reinforce 'em, and to provide a nucleus for follow up forces. During this war, though, Bravo happened to get put where the Iraqis attacked with all the power of their armor that was still capable. It was just the Iraqis' bad luck that they came up against an outfit that was well trained in M1 tanks. The M1 used to be arguably the best tank in the world, now it is cearly the best tank in the world. Their 12 tanks met an Iraqi brigade - some 200 armored vehicles, several thousand ground troops - and essentially wiped them out."
I ask him to explain some technical terms.
"Shoot," he says.
"They're ditches, basically, anti-tank ditches, six to ten feet deep, with the excavated sand piled up in front."
"Those are Russian-made personnel carriers. Picks a cannon and a light anti-tank guided missile Holds about eight fully loaded infantrymen, is small, maneuverable - hard to see."
"Hand controls in the tank - with triggers and magnetic safeties - made by Cadillac Gauge Company. That's why they call 'em Cadillacs."
And exactly what is a "say-bow" round?
"SABOT is a misnomer, actually, for a kinetic-energy round. It has a long rod penetrator made of depleted uranium - very, very dense metal -nine'n a half inches long and weighs 11 pounds. It travels so fast - one mile per second - and hits with such force that there's a huge kinetic transfer. Enormous heat is generated, molecules part, it goes through, the huge over-pressure heat detonates ammunition, paint, anything else, and goes right out the other side. It will cause a tank to detonate catastrophically. It is the primary tank-killing round."
Chambers pauses for a moment, then comments, "It's a shame. We really didn't have a thing in the world against the average Iraqi. They were just stuffed in a real bad place. They had equipment that wasn't as good as ours, they didn't know how to use it as well, they just were in a bad spot. It's hard to imagine the kind of terror they must have experienced. We can't even imagine it.
"And that's why once they began to surrender in droves - well, we are the good guys in this thing. We didn't waste human lives any more than we had to."
I've known Ivan since he was a little boy. Coached him in wrestling. Saw him just before he left for the war (the Gulf war, the Smart Bomb war, the Yellow Ribbon war), and when he came back we had a talk.
"I never really thought I'd ever go to war," Ivan admits. "We were told, as reservists, you know, that very rarely are they called up. And even when they were, they never used ’em. I joined mainly to help pay for my college.
"I was involved with third platoon before the war, and they were a pretty rowdy group. The big thing was to hang out at the E-Club, the Desert Oasis. It was real bad for a while. These colored guys'd come in there and start playin' this black music. Some o’ their songs run together and never end - and they played 'em all night long. Used t' just drive us nuts. And they'd stay open to, like, four in the morning. We'd stay up an' watch all these white girls come in and pick up on these colored guys all night long. That was the thing that bothered us - if you weren't black, they wouldn't dance with you or nothin'. We'd bet beers on who could get one to dance. It was pretty funny, you know, getting turned down or something.
"Then in August, when the Kuwait thing first broke out, I was called up and asked to volunteer. I thought about it, talked it over with my wife, and we decided the best thing to do was go now, train for a couple months with active-duty tankers. I figured it'd be better to go to war with active-duty tankers than reservists. But I was way wrong on that one. Way it ended up, everyone in my unit volunteered. For that reason, I guess, they decided to keep us together, the whole unit - Bravo Company, 4th Tanks."
How did the active-duty tankers react to you guys?
"Not well at all. To them, we were just weekend warriors. When we went through this training course at Twentynine Palms, we were attached to 2nd Tank Battalion, and they had just trained before us. So we were getting our training, and they were getting sent overseas. The training staff was really surprised that a reserve unit could do so well. When we were done training with the new tanks, the staff said that we were the best unit that'd ever gone through their training in the ten years that they'd been training 'em. But we have a lot of college students and a lot of people that had lives, you know, civilian lives and jobs and careers. Our company commander's a wine salesman, our executive officer’s a policeman, our first sergeant's a city engineer. We wanted to learn as much as we could and survive and come back home. Whereas some o' the active-duty mentality was 'That is our job.' They didn't really care as much, I guess, 'cause they didn't have as much to look forward to.
"When the staff wrote a letter to the battalion commander telling him that he should look forward to working with us, that we went through the training course in half the time his active-duty tankers did - I think that put him right on the defensive. It kind of made him mad that we outdid his guys.
"When we got to Saudi Arabia, we didn't even have radios in all of our tanks until the day before the war started. And a lot of our tools were missing when we got on our tanks - brand new tanks, you know, and all the gear was there when they dropped 'em. Somebody'd loaded up on a bunch of gear - our gear.
"Sometimes they'd ship in hot chow for us. Once in a while, battalion would forget to tell somebody to come get our hot chow. And when we did get it, it was like half the portions we needed. And we were s’posed to get pop. Everyone looked forward to the pop. Lotta times we didn’t get our pop. We'd go to battalion, they'd have cases of it stacked up. We'd get pretty upset. Like mail, we'd get our mail a little bit later than everybody else's, and that started torquin' us.
"We had a really good first sergeant; if we needed something, he'd go recon it, sneak in and get what we needed. We acquired several hummers [HMMVs, like a jeep] that we needed, you know, 'cause they wouldn't give 'em out at battalion. The first sergeant took care of things."
I drink a beer, Ivan sips a pop. Try to check his 24-year-old eyes, see if anything is different in there; hard to tell, looking at a kidlike face. Most troops in Desert Storm - that blink in history's eye -saw nothing but an infinite sea of sand. For others.... Ivan sips his pop and tells me how to fire a tank.
"First y'got four guys in a tank - the driver, the loader, the gunner - that was me — and the tank commander."
He tells me all their names except the tank commander’s. "I really don't wanna let that out." Why?
"Mmmm ... it’s... he really wasn't part of our company, before the war. It's —"
Well, okay. How do you fire a tank?
"Well, I’d be looking through my scope, traversing - we're in platoons of four tanks, and each tank has a sector to search and traverse, so we got all 360 degrees covered. The tank commander-"
The guy you don't wanna talk about.
Ivan laughs. "Yeah. He sometimes has his head out a little bit, looking for targets. If he sees a target he'll say, 'Gunner!' That lets me know, supposedly, there’s a fire command coming. Then he'll say, 'SABOT!' or 'HEAT!' - that's the round he wants to use. When I see the target, I yell, 'Identified!' Soon as I yell 'identified,' the loader reaches up and shifts the safety switch onto 'fire' and yells, 'Up!' as loud as he can. Tank commander hears this and says, 'Fire!' Just before I fire I yell, ‘On the way!' That warns the loader that the breech is coming back and to get outta the way. Then I squeeze the triggers on the Cadillacs and boom! shoot it. It ejects a casing, and the loader's got another round ready between his knees, an’ soon as the breech goes back into battery, he loads another one. Takes less than two seconds.''
I look at Ivan sipping his pop and wonder at his detachment. The nicknames alone of Bravo's tanks seemed fateful: Hot Bitch, Death Chant, Torture Chamber, Rockin' Reaper.... Ivan's tank was Mjolnir ("Hammer of the Gods").
I ask about his first kill.
"It was in the afternoon on the first day. We'd crossed both mine fields and were headed towards Kuwait City. That was the only time they made us wear chemical suits. They were hot, miserable. You get this charcoal all over your body - they're charcoal-lined on the inside - and you try to get it off without showers. You're black after wearin' 'em. After a while they said we didn't need 'em, they didn't feel there was a chemical threat.
"That first day we got, I don't know, must've been about 50 klicks [kilometers] from Kuwait City when we see a row of power lines and berms all along underneath. In the distance there's dust clouds from planes bombing targets. So we get called to check out these berms. What we see are tanks, buried up to their turrets. All you can see is a tank commander stickin' his head out to see over a berm.
"As we're pullin' up, we keep gettin' reports that we have friendly vehicles out there and to positively identify our targets. So we're, like, 1500 meters away when we start blowin’ up all these targets. And there was sort of a road, about 1000 meters in front of us, parallel to our line of attack. Well, the Iraqis start comin' along in whatever they could — Toyota Land Cruisers, pickups - to pick up Iraqi soldiers who weren't giving up. They pick 'em up, take 'em back out in the desert. These guys'd come down in these Land Cruisers fast as they could — 50, 60, 70 miles an hour — right down this road in front of us. And — " Ivan laughs, incredulously, clears his throat " — we were ordered to shoot ’em. I don't know, some of 'em ... made it... I guess.
"That was the first thing I shot. On the new tanks you don't lead ’em. The old tanks, you have mil lines on your [sight scope] you have to adjust — so many mil for how fast they're traveling. On the M1, you just push the laser button and follow it with your cross hairs. It automatically adjusts the lead. When I pressed the laser button, I felt the whole tank jump. You could tell they were movin’ real fast. It was kind of strange, you know. They say, 'Fire!'... you push a button an' ...just watch it explode. Just... watch it tumble down the road ... burnin'... a big ball of flames tumblin' down the road. That was the strangest feeling, you know, that... I just killed somebody."
Bravo's weekend warriors scored, total, 119 kills - 119 Iraqi vehicles destroyed (human destruction was not calculated). Most of the kills came at night.
"Night was the scariest time for me. We'd have to navigate at night, and a lot of times our navigational equipment would not work. We couldn't get signals or something, I don't know. But after we'd shot all those targets along the power lines, we took a lot of prisoners. They just kept comin' in. And one POW reported that the whole area was [a target] for Iraqi artillery. So our battalion left us. We had to stay because the POWs were still comin' in. We couldn't believe it. Just 'cause one POW says somethin' you know, the whole battalion takes off.
"So it's gettin' dark, we're still takin' POWs, and we stay until we got all the ones that were coming in. Now we had to try and find the rest of our battalion. And we couldn't find 'em. We drive around all night long. We drove to one place, found a different battalion, and they tell us, 'Well, okay, this is the direction. This is the (battalion's) coordinates,' where they're s'posed to be. And we drive this way so many klicks - using a compass! — count the klicks on your tank by how many miles you traveled. Well, that doesn't work too good in the desert sometimes. And we ended up, totally by accident, about four in the morning, almost exactly in the spot we started that night.
"So we figure, okay, we'll rest for two hours, set our night security up. We get in a tight coil [circle, guns pointed out], six tanks on night sights, six tanks try in' to take a rest. You don't really sleep. You're so keyed up, you're half afraid to sleep. Six a.m. comes, and these guys on watch start stirring everybody up. It was kind of foggy, cloudy, you know - the smoke is real bad over there -and nobody's really watching, 'cause they're stirring everybody up. And then we hear tracks. So we bail back into our tanks. We didn't know what the tracks were. We could hear 'em, but we couldn't see 'em. We had to use our night sights, our thermals. Our officer, my tank commander, was sleeping in the tank. I had to wake him up and get him out of the way so I could jump in my gunner's seat. He says, 'What’s goin' on?' I yell, "Tanks!'
"They were about 1000 meters in front of my sight. We like to shoot at 3000 meters, 'cause their range is 2000 meters. And 1000 meters is, like, you can throw a stone at 'em. We don't like to be that close. The sights take a minute just to warm up before they'll work. It was just hazy enough so you couldn't identify what they were. And soon as I'd jumped in my tank, I flipped on my thermals to get 'em warmed up.
"All of a sudden rounds go down. Our two end guys had started firin'. I'm lookin' through and see all these burning tanks. Soon as my thermals click on, I start just pickin' out targets and firin'. I'd fire and could see one or two shells were right on it. The other two tanks [in the coil] swung around, and we all got on line. I was busy shootin' targets. By now the tank commander's awake. We're firin' like crazy. It was amazing. We got up at six, and six-oh-one we're firin' at a whole column of Iraqi tanks, a regiment of Republican Guard. And we took out, I don't know, guess they said 30-some targets in the first two minutes.
"It was almost like it wasn't real. When I saw my first tank target explode and watched the turret fly up in the air - I didn't realize that they could do that much destruction. You know, I didn't think they were anything like that. Those guys in there didn't know what hit 'em. I mean, we could find little pieces that you could recognize as human flesh, that was it. They were gone.
"We found some big body pieces. Some. But those were very few. I think they were trying, maybe, to bail out of their tanks. They were following in a long column. When we started blowin' up the lead tanks, the guys in back of the column started to bail out. We talked to one POW — guess he was a major or something, really high up, Republican Guard officer - and he said he saw the tank in front of him blow up and the tank behind him blow up, and he told his crew, 'We got to bail out.' And his crew said, 'No, we're stayin' with our tanks - we're gonna fight.' And he got out and was standing on his tank when it blew up. Threw him off his tank, and he survived, untouched. The guys inside - dog tags wouldn't've helped in that. You wouldn't've found ’em.
"Seeing the dead, you know, walking up and seein' pieces and stuff, it was no big deal. But seeing wounded guys comin' in, seein' POWs come in hurtin' - that bothered me. When the fog first lifted, you could see guys crawling, tryin' to surrender. That was one of the hardest parts. One guy was crawling, he'd drag his legs - they were broke or paralyzed or something - and he'd drag his legs. And once in a while he'd sit up, then he'd fall down, you know, on his side, and just kind of lay there for hours. Then he'd crawl, I don't know, two or three hundred meters. He finally just rolled over and just didn't get back up. I knew he'd died. And it was kind of hard for me, you know, just watchin' this guy try to surrender."
The ground offensive began?
And how long did it last?
So how many hours were you inside that tank? "Something like 94 hours. I don't think I was out more'n six minutes."
How did you take care of bathroom needs? "You just hollered at somebody. Your tank commander said, 'Stop!' And he said, 'Okay - get out.' And your wing man or somebody'd cover for you, and you'd bail out, and usually, whoever had to make a quick stop would just bail out and go do what you had to da"
Ever have to take a shit during that time?
"Yeah, I did as a matter of fact. We were lost again, looking for some crossroads, and I'd blown up a couple tanks -"
You blew up tanks while you were lost?
"Yeah, we'd run into 'em. We had TOW vehicles. They're like jeeps with anti-tank missiles on 'em, and they lead us to targets. I watched some o' the TOWs try to shoot at a couple of targets. When vehicles tried to run, we knew they were safe to shoot. There was all kinds of vehicles around us that were ours, and I shot a couple of tanks trying to escape. We ended up that night guiding on the burning tanks to the place where we were s'posed to go, because our [communication] was out, and we were driving around in circles.
"It was kind of raining, and our thermal sights didn't work real well because tanks get cold at night and the heat signatures aren't real bright. It was real dark, so I was trying to help guide our driver, 'cause you didn't want to run into any bunkers. The Iraqis had bunkers all over the place under the sand, and you didn't want to drop a tank in one of those. People can get hurt. And I have my gun tube out over the front, trying to lead our driver, and we drive right by a BMP. The wing tank calls up and goes, 'You guys notice that BMP you just drove by?' We go, 'No!' All of a sudden tssssshhhhh! a round goes right over the front of me. When you travel, you're in a wedge formation. We're in the middle, wing man to the right. The lead guy from another platoon shot back across our front. I traversed over and got right on target and was ready to pull the trigger when I seen it blow up. I bet it wasn't more'n 800 feet from us. I think they were just trying to hide. They tried to just stay still."
Those Iraqis must've been feeling terror.
"Scared, I think, most of 'em."
Okay - you said you had to take a shit.
"Oh..." Ivan laughs. "I hadn't crapped for three days. No one had. It's like two in the morning, we're getting close to Kuwait City, and we were looking for this crossroads where our command center is s'posed to be. We re still lost. We're taking directions from somebody with a PLRS [satellite] device. They won't come over and lead us, 'cause we're a tank 'n' they're soft-skinned, and there's still a lot of enemy vehicles in the area. And suddenly I gotta take a crap bad. I yell, and the tank commander says, 'Stop - get out.' I bail out, and even though we're in a hot zone, tank commander says I have to dig a hole. I'm pullin' on this shovel, tryin' to get it outta the equipment box on the side o' the tank, but it's stuck. I finally get it out, dig this hole real quick, and just as I'm ready, just as I'm tryin' to take a crap - we start takin' artillery rounds. I go 'Goddamit!' 'n' pull up my pants 'n' bail back in the tank. I still have to go. So we call in our artillery, and our artillery finally stops their artillery, and eventually I was able to go back out 'n' - finish it"
Being flat desert - that must've been a bit of an embarrassment most of the time.
"That was one o' the worst things - tryin' to take a shit out there with everybody watchin' you do it. I mean, you had no place to hide. You just dug a hole 'n‘... for me it was hard to get used to that factor. You could walk out there as far as you wanted to walk, and someone could still see you takin' a crap. We'd come up with all sorts of devices. Get milk crates or something, cut a hole out of the bottom. One guy'd stolen a toilet seat 'n‘ taped little stick legs on it. We kept that together as long as we could. But there was always someone who'd yell, 'Hey! Don’t shit in my living room!' or something."
Why don't you tell me a little bit about the deal with your tank commander?
"We didn't really want it out. San Diego's real close to a lot of military. It hasn't made any papers or anything. We kinda look at it as a scar to our record as Bravo Company. He was kind of a jerk. He wasn't originally part of our company. He'd never drove with us before. We never even knew him. They'd brought him in from Oklahoma. They needed an officer. He was a tank officer at one time, so they sent him with us. He was on my tank, my tank commander, and I didn’t get along with this guy at all. I mean, he cussed at me, he screamed at me, he called us filthy names, he threatened to relieve me. He eventually did relieve our platoon sergeant, at the end of the war. I mean this guy was just.... I told him one time, I said, ‘You know, we'd appreciate it if you’d treat us with a little more respect, instead of cussin' at us.'"
Why did he cuss at you?
"Just his attitude. He’d say, 'I'm the captain here, and I can do whatever I want. You don't like it, too bad.' He'd call us assholes and sonofabitches, you know, just start screaming and yelling. And then he'd get his gear out and spread it out all over the tank. His gear was three times as much as ours. He had his pack so full, and he had stuff taped to the outside of his seabag, and he had all kinds of camping gear and stuff. He thought he was just the Boy Scout. He had camp stoves and all this other kinda crap that you didn't need, Stemo and all kinds of stuff. And he'd rummage through these storage boxes and throw it all on the tank, and then we'd get a call, say we’re goin' out for some maneuvers, and he'd scream at us, 'Get ready! Get ready! Get ready!' Well, we're trying to throw all this stuff into boxes and clean up after him. 'Get goin'! Move it faster! You're s'posed to have this stuff ready!' and I'm just, ohhh - I was hot. And I told him about it one time, and he threatened to relieve me, send me to Leavenworth for bein’ disrespectful to an officer. Couldn't believe it."
Didn't he get charged for stealing someone's weapon?
So what'd he supposedly take?
"A nine-millimeter pistol. He'd been seen with it. And he'd also had an AK-47. After the war we had an amnesty period, where everybody had to turn in the stuff they'd found, you know, collected from prisoners. And he kept his AK-47 and all these magazines with rounds and stuff. He had relieved our platoon sergeant just shortly before that, and we all knew he had this AK-47. He took another guy's AK-47, turned it in, and told 'em it was his. We all knew he still had his. We told the first sergeant and that we also suspected him of having this pistol.
"Well, when we finally got back into Saudi Arabia and Camp 15, Tent City, we turned our tanks in to the port, our machine guns and stuff. And then they started having searches. And our CO searched his gear and found the AK-47. And while they’re doing this - (the tank commander) suddenly has to go to the bathroom. A couple of our staff sergeants decided to follow him, 'cause we knew he had this nine-millimeter on his body, in pieces, all stripped down. On the way, he threw some pieces in the dumpster and some in the head there. The staff sergeants fished 'em out. But I guess he didn't get rid of the barrel. They found the barrel in his pocket. And they told him to resign. Just resign your commission. He beat us home."
So - he's history as far as the Marine Corps is concerned?
"No. He said he was framed. He decided to go for the court martial instead of just resigning his commission. This guy wasn’t all together. He'd sit there and tell us how his mother had mental problems and stuff. During the war, during the battles, he'd lose it, start screamin’ yellin' at everybody. And after the war, going over our reports and stuff, he doesn't remember battle situations at all. He was in high stress."
Does every tank have an officer on it?
"No. He was a platoon leader.”
Why was he on yours?
"Well, I was a tank commander one time, but I'm a pretty good gunner, and I'd been a gunner for a pretty long time, and he wanted a good gunner on his tank. Officers always want good crewmen. And I ended up gettin' stuck on his tank. I could take care of the tanks, I'd been on it for five years, I knew what I was doin'. I tried to get out of it when he threatened to relieve me. I told him, 'Do it!' But he wouldn't. If it hadn't been for him, it'd been a real nice experience over there."
Did you ever get to Kuwait City?
"We didn't actually get into the city, just the outskirts. We talked to some of the dairy farmers though, and some of the stories they told were pretty bad. You know, people talk about Kuwait as being one of the richest countries, but there's poor people too. They live in shanty towns, sheet metal and stuff. They were mostly poor farmers. This one guy had, I guess, 25 head of dairy cows. When the Iraqis came, they loaded up all his cows and took 'em away. They held him hostage, tied up, kept a gun to his throat - for two months. They took his family. He doesn't know where his family is, his wife and his kids. They're gone. They took everything he had except a carton of cigarettes he'd hidden. A carton of cigarettes over there goes for over 300 bucks. And that's all this guy had left. I mean, he couldn't hardly afford to even eat - and he gave us the cigarettes. We had guys who were dyin' for a cigarette. That was his way of thanking us, I guess, for freeing his country."
So — how's it to be back?
"It's almost right back to normal. You know, it's like, the first two weeks was kind of an adjustment period. Getting back and getting used to the kids and the wife again. Goin’ back to work. It didn't take long. Getting used to being back and having a shower and being able to use your own toilet and shut the door. You know, that was the greatest thing."