View Full Version : In desert, inside tank, soldiers become team

03-07-2005, 05:07 AM

Spc. Tom Royal, 21, of Carson City puts the muzzle on the cannon of a M1A1 Abrams tank late last month near the range at Fort Irwin. Royal is a tank gun loader with the Nevada Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry Alpha Troop, based in Yerington.

In desert, inside tank, soldiers become team
Nevada crews hone skills at Fort Irwin
3/6/2005 11:36 pm

FORT IRWIN, Calif. — Sgt. Ty Farmer’s sore nose is evidence that a fast moving tank can stop suddenly.

“The brakes are touchy,” said Spc. Lukas Haaglund of Reno, who, with Farmer, makes up half the four-man crew of an M1A1 Abrams tank, the primary weapon of the Nevada Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry. “That’s probably the hardest thing about it, getting used to the brakes.”

Haaglund drives the tank. Farmer, from Elko, is the gunner, his face usually pressed into a gun sight when the tank is traveling at speeds up to 40 mph. A quick stop by Haaglund sometimes results in Farmer’s nose hitting the sight.

“I’ll hear about it,” Haaglund said with a smile.

Farmer’s nose hasn’t been broken, but the gunner figures he’s bumped it about “a hundred” times.

The inside of a 67-ton Abrams is a tight squeeze for Farmer, Haaglund, Spc. Tom Royal of Carson City, who loads the gun, and Capt. Randy Lau of Las Vegas, the tank commander.

“The gunner is pretty cramped up,” said Farmer, 26, who operates heavy equipment for a Northern Nevada mining company when he’s not serving in the Guard. “The tank commander is right behind me. We’re both pretty good-sized guys. His knees are pretty much on my shoulders.”

Together, Lau, Farmer, Haaglund and Royal, their noses, knees and all, comprise Alpha 66. They are one of 14 crews in Yerington-based Alpha Troop, the “Highlanders,” a unit of the 221st, which has its state headquarters in Las Vegas.

Most of Alpha Troop’s soldiers live in Reno-Sparks and Carson City, along with rural communities throughout Northern Nevada.

“These guys are awesome,” said Lt. Col. Johnny Isaak of Las Vegas, commander of the 221st. “We have tough standards. You just don’t get in (a tank) and go out and shoot.”

The four men of Alpha 66 are among 500 soldiers of the 221st deployed since August at the Army’s 1,000-square mile National Training Center at Fort Irwin, an area about the size of Rhode Island in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert.

It’s where Army units on their way to Iraq stop for monthlong practice sessions in which the 221st plays the enemy for two weeks.

The squadron, which traces its origins to the pre-statehood volunteer horse cavalry in the Nevada Territory in 1863, has 35 of its 58 tanks at Fort Irwin, where the 221st is on active duty until February 2006.

The deployment is the largest outside the state for the Nevada Guard, which has Army and Air Force units serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although Alpha 66 and other squadron crews at Fort Irwin spend much of their time without tanks, impersonating Iraqi insurgents and detonating mock car bombs in mock desert villages, they fight in what the Army calls “high intensity conflicts” at the training center.

Several of those “battles” are scheduled for this summer, when the 221st will oppose tank crews from other Army units. They’ll shoot each other electronically in laser-tag duels.

“Back on the iron,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Brown, anticipating the war game. “That’s what we live for.”

It’s also why Alpha 66 practices, over and over again, at Fort Irwin’s Young Gunnery Complex, where Haaglund drives and Farmer fires live shells, hitting tank-size targets a mile away in the desert.

In late February the desert is muddy after a sudden heavy rain. Tank treads leave deep imprints that quickly fill with water. But Alpha 66 keeps going.

“If you have a crew that functions well together and gets along, you can get fairly proficient in five weeks of actual training,” said Farmer, who, with the help of a computer aiming system, hit four targets in four tries during one practice.

“People have a misconception about those tanks,” Isaak said as he watched the training from a tower overlooking the gun range. “They think it just lobs shells. It’s a high-powered rifle.”

Inside the tank, which carries 40 shells, the work of firing that rifle can be hot, especially in the summer when desert temperatures climb well above 100 degrees.

“It gets pretty miserable a times,” said Farmer, who joined the Army Guard shortly after finishing high school. “On average, it’s 15 to 20 degrees hotter (inside the tank) than it is outside.”

There’s no air conditioning.

“The driver and the gunner get the worst of that,” Farmer said. “We’re stuck down inside. The tank commander and the loader get to ride up in the fresh air.

When the hatches are closed, the crew sweats together.

“We all smell about the same,” Haaglund said.

Alpha 66 is a new crew, together about a month-and-a-half.

“We sleep on the tank or we bunk together in a tent,” Farmer said of training in the desert.

But the crew has a hierarchy.

First comes Lau, the commander, then Farmer, the gunner. The loader and driver usually are the youngest soldiers inside a tank.

“The newest member will be the driver or the loader,” Lau said. “When he progresses, goes to schools and demonstrates the ability to take the next step up, he’s promoted to gunner. Once he demonstrates he can be a gunner and has (the potential) to be a commander, he becomes a commander.”

Lau is more than the leader of Alpha 66. He’s commander of the entire 14-tank Alpha Troop. But his crew sticks together.

“We barbecue, have a beer,” Haaglund said.

Like players on a team, members of Alpha 66 get to know each other’s habits.

“I speak fast when I get excited,” said Lau, who attended the University of Nevada, Reno. “You have to get accustomed to that. I have to get accustomed to how other people speak.”

That’s because the tank’s 120mm gun is fired after a sequence of commands and responses by the tank crew that starts when a target is identified and ends when Farmer says “on the way” and shoots.

“I pull the trigger on the ‘y’ of ‘way,’ ” Farmer said.

Load. Aim. Fire. It happens in about six seconds.

“Inside the tank, there’s not much noise,” Farmer said. “You hear the noise of the shell casing ejecting.”

Outside, Farmer’s shot resounds like a thunderclap next to your ear.

“When I joined the Army, I wanted to be on the biggest and baddest thing on the battlefield,” Farmer said of his tank. “This is it, right here.”