Have You Heard the One About…?
In the cool stillness of the after-midnight hours, four men sat in near silence watching and listening. The only sounds were those of the familiar high-pitched humming of the ballistic computer, the ever-present rattle of the thermal sights, and the occasional comment over the internal communication system inside their M1A1 Abrams Tank.
“Have you guys heard the one about the man who swapped his bed for a trampoline? His wife hit the ceiling!” Sergeant First Class Barnes said. He was the Tank Commander and the Platoon Sergeant. He laughed into his microphone as he rested his head on the pad over his gun sight, a tubular extension of the gunner’s sight.
“Sergeant, you’re crazy,” Sergeant Jones, the gunner, said. Barnes called him Jonesy. He was his right hand.
They sat in silence for a minute. Sergeant Barnes said, “You heard the one about the guy who kept a canary in the house so his wife could tell when her perfume was too strong?” They chuckled, but it was cut off by the gunners sudden warning.
“Holy shit, Sarge, they’re coming!” Jonesy said. He watched the road from their position in a ditch alongside the road. Looking back toward them from the enemy’s view, only the main gun of the tank showed above the embankment. They were well hidden.
“Okay, okay, we’ve got to fight! Time to get sharp! I’ve got to raise that Infantry Commander on the radio.” He took quick note of the enemy’s position through his sights and checked the radio.
“I hate being attached to the Infantry. If they’re not sleeping, they’re…sleeping,” Jonesy said. Sergeant Barnes sat in the commander’s seat high and on the right side of the gun, with Sergeant Jones the gunner in his position, lower and at his knees. There was not much room inside an M1 Abrams tank. Inside the tank is like living inside a small igloo with an artillery gun shoved in through the front door.
“Eagle Six this is White Four, over. Beep.” The radio beeped as Barnes let go of his switch-to-talk key on his crew helmet head set. There was a soft rush of static. The beep was a reminder that the network was secure, encrypted. The Sergeant heard nothing but silence. He checked his watch. It was zero-two-thirty. He tried to contact the Infantry Company Commander again, got no answer, and again, and once more got no answer, just the soft rush of static.
“Asshole, horse faced, fucktard, Company Commander, come on!” he said in frustration.
Pvt Vickory laughed, “You know we can all hear you, right?”
“Sarge is so funny,” Specialist Ferrero said. He was the driver.
He took off his helmet for a second and rubbed his sandy hair, and three-day beard. “I know it’s after two but they can’t all be asleep!” He looked down at the gunner sitting below him, donned his helmet and spoke to him.
“Are they still there?”
Sergeant Jones leaned forward to his gun aiming sights and checked. “Yeah, Sarge, they moved some, but just rearraigned though, it looks like they’re getting lined up. There’s three BRDM’s down the road. These models are the BTR-40Ps with anti-tank guided missile launchers on top.” They were Russian designed, four-wheeled reconnaissance vehicles with boat-shaped hulls. He could see them as plain as day through the thermal sights.
SFC Barnes’ tank section was attached to an Infantry company. They were in the edge of a forest near a village called Czarna in central west Poland overwatching a two-lane road. Overwatch was a force protection tactic meant to secure an area to the front. The gunner continued to scan.
“Hey Sarge, what did the command say about the situation. You were at that big meeting yesterday,” Jonesy asked.
“Hold steady, hold the course until they get their heads out of their asses. They’ll figure out what to give up to the Russians to get them to stop.”
Things had gone sideways politically. NATO, the world, and finally, reluctantly, the United States warned them not to invade Belarus. After that, the world told them not to invade Lithuania. Now, the United States was in Poland to make sure they didn’t invade Germany. The Russian Federation rolled through Northeastern Europe four weeks ago and the NATO Alliance slowed them down here – on this front anyway.
“How far now?”
“2000 meters still, give or take. Let me fire the laser to them and I can tell for sure,” Jonesy said.
“That’s an act of aggression. Can’t get the asshole Commander on the radio to get permission.”
Sergeant Barnes leaned around the gun breech and tapped the loader, Private Vickory on his crew helmet. The breech of the big cannon took up most of the room inside the tank, not all, but most. He sat in the loader’s seat leaned against the turret wall with his head against the ammo tubes with his eyes closed. It amazed Barnes how quickly these soldiers could fall asleep.
“Vickory, I need you to dismount and go over to the Infantry unit to our north, that’s to the left, that way. Tell the first soldier you come to that we’ve got enemy to our front, three vehicles with missile launchers. That infantry soldier should only be about twenty-five yards away. Tell him he must pass the word down to the Company Commander. Got it?”
“Got it Sergeant. I wasn’t sleeping, just dozing,” Vickory said. Barnes shrugged. He unplugged from the internal commo cable and climbed out of the tank. Barnes shook his head.
Ten minutes later, Vickory climbed back on the tank and dropped feet-first into the loader’s seat. He plugged back in to the internal commo. “There’s no infantry out there, Sergeant. After that little bit of forest to the left the area opens. I scanned the area with my night vision goggles. There’s nothing out there. They’re gone.”
“Bastards! They were right there! They didn’t come tell us they were moving! Okay, so it’s just us and our other tank down the road. I’ll see if I can raise them on the radio.” After several attempts, Barnes did not hear an answer from Staff Sergeant Halloway, the Tank Commander of the other tank, his wing-man. He turned to his loader again.
“I hate to do this to you Vickory, but we can’t raise White Two. I need you to go down the road and tell Staff Sergeant Halloway to get his fat ass up and get on the radio with me. Stay low, get on the right side of the road where there’s more cover. The enemy can see you.”
Vickory unplugged from the tank’s internal communication system again, and climbed out. Barnes watched through his sites as Vickory trotted across the road.
A missile flew from a BTR launcher, and a second later it slammed into SSG Halloway’s tank. It exploded. Vickory hit the ground and covered his head.
Barnes turned his head from his sights and grimaced. He looked back, Vickory was on the ground but moving. That was good. But the tank was a catastrophic loss. Ammunition inside Halloway’s tank cooked off and secondary explosions sent more fireballs into the night sky.
“Come on! Get out of there. GET OUT!” Barnes screamed. But no one got out of the burning tank.
“Yo! Ferrero! Can you hear me down there?” Barnes could not see the driver from his station. The driver in an M1 Abrams drove the tank lying on his back inside a small space below the front slope with the hatch closed. The tank drove like a motorcycle with the accelerator, gear shift, and steering on adjustable handlebars.
More explosions lit the sky.
The driver, Specialist Ferrero was barely audible. “Fuck Sergeant.”
“Suck it up, Ferraro, suck it up! Everybody, suck it up! Crank the tank!” He shouted at the driver. Barnes heard Vickory tromp on the front fender. He climbed inside the tank and sat in the loader’s seat breathing hard. Barnes leaned across the breach of the big gun.
He looked the eighteen-year-old, red-haired Vickory in the eyes. They looked dilated, but there was no rapid side-to side movement, like he was in his head, lost somewhere.
“Fire in the hole!” Ferrero announced and he pushed the start button. Barnes heard the familiar whine of the huge turbine begin its start sequence. That normality brought some grounding for him. His world wasn’t as shaky and his gut didn’t churn so much. He felt more solid than he did after watching those men burn.
Barnes tried to present a calm, cool demeanor. He talked easy, “Okay, Jonesy, check your boresight, make sure your sights are lined up.” The men needed routine, some calm.
While he twisted around to work the radio, he said to the crew, “Have you heard the one about the termite who walked into the bar? He asked, where is the bar tender?” No one laughed. He set the frequency to the Battalion Tactical Operations Center and tried to call them, but with no luck.
That radio is killing me! He took off his helmet and thought about slamming it on the face of the console. But he kept his temper in check. That would send the wrong signal.
He took out an incident report card and jotted down the location of the burning tank, last names of the crew, and a brief recounting of the incident in bullet statements. He sat for minute to collect himself before he announced to the crew what he knew he had to do. He took a couple deep breaths.
“Everyone listen up. We’re alone here. I can’t raise higher command on the radio. We can’t call for artillery or air support. Right now, we face three vehicles with great fire power. We’re going to get up on the road so we can pivot the gun better. We’re going to take them out as fast as we can, and bug out of here.”
“Sergeant, we’ve got more problems. The BTR’s have dismounted troops. They are circling to our left and right,” Jonesy said. “I think they’ trying to trap us.”
Or, we can just bug out now, he thought. He had that choice, to live to fight another day, but… that’s fleeing the battle. Isn’t it?
“It’s a pincher move. Vickory, get your machine gun ready and take out every soldier on that side, I’ll get on the .50 caliber and take out everything on the right side, and gunner, you take out those vehicles with the main gun. There’s no fancy-dancy fire commands. I’ve given you your targets, and that is all the fire commands I’m going to give. When I say fight, we fight, got it?”
“Let’s do this,” Jonesy said.
“I can fight with the machine gun and load the main gun, Sergeant, I’m that quick,” Vickory said.
“Okay, let’s do this. Driver, give me a hard, right track and climb up the embankment onto the road surface.”
The turbine whined and the tank moved. They set on the road and Barnes faced his tank toward the enemy.
A missile whizzed over the tank.
The gunner destroyed two of the three enemy vehicles and switched it up to help fight infantry on the ground. They fought the advancing infantry and the remaining enemy vehicle until the gunner’s and loader’s machine guns ran out of ammunition. Jones never got a clear shot at the third vehicle with the main gun. Barnes thought he saw movement so he stood out of his hatch. Two enemy soldiers were to his right, one with a shoulder mounted, anti-tank missile launcher. He swung his .50 caliber machine gun in that direction, and began firing. The enemy soldier fired his launcher and the missile struck the front right track, exploding and sending shards of metal flying. Barnes ducked back into the tank.
“No big harm done!” Ferraro announced. “We can fix the track when it’s over. Keep fighting!”
The smoke cleared and Barnes scanned for the two soldiers and could not find them. He must have killed them. It was dawn and the enemy fire stopped. The crew was exhausted and stopped to rest for a quick ammo count when someone climbed up on the tank and poked his head down the loader’s hatch.
It was Staff Sergeant Halloway.
“Halloway, you’re alive! But how?” Barnes asked.
“Never mind that. You men fought your asses off! They’re all gone!”
The men cheered!
“I’ll be damned,” Barnes said.
Barnes took off his helmet and rested his head back on the radio that had let him down a few hours ago. He looked at Vickory’s smiling face, and down at Jonesy who gave him thumbs up.
“There all gone, dead, Sergeant. It’s over.”
Halloway took his head out of the hatch for a moment and he poked it back in. “You won’t believe this, but the First Sergeant is here with hot meals for you guys. Come on out of the tank and get some breakfast!”
He did not have to tell them twice. They crawled out of the tank quickly, hopped to the ground and went to the back of the tank. The First Sergeant had the chow line set up and soldiers were getting eggs and sausage piled on paper plates, hot coffee, juice or milk in cups.
But Barnes stopped. The entire crew of his wingman’s tank was getting fed. All four of Halloway’s men were there, healthy, smiling, and eating. How is this possible? He watched them burn just hours ago. He looked at the First Sergeant. The First Sergeant waved him over. Everything was clean and fresh in the dawn’s light. The food smelled wonderful, the soldiers were all clean. They had washed their faces, shaved and put on clean uniforms.
His driver, Specialist Ferraro brushed by him to get in line and his thick black hair was clean and combed back, the way he liked it. Ferraro looked back at him and smiled. “Come eat, Sergeant. You deserve it. You fought hard last night.”
He looked at the soldiers with plates in their hands. Vickory sat on the road embankment, turned to him, his helmet off and his red hair combed, smiled at him with a mouthful of eggs and sausage. Vickory raised his Styrofoam cup to him in a salute. The other soldiers saw him, and they to, raised their white cups to Sergeant Barnes in a salute.
Barnes grinned, “Have you heard the one about the paranoid bloodhound?”