One of a Marine’s best friends in battle is 67-tons of steel, armor and fire power.
In Helmand province, Afghanistan, Marines with Bravo Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 6, are using the M1A1 Abrams tank to make the battlefield safer for infantry Marines fighting the enemy.
Lance Cpl. Kevin Quigley, tank crewman with Bravo Company, compared the firepower of one tank to an entire infantry platoon. In addition to its main 120 mm main gun, an Abrams tank has a .50-caliber machine gun and two M240 machine guns mounted.
“There’s nothing else like an M1A1 on the battlefield,” Quigley, from Emerson, N.J., said. “It’s a little bit of an ego boost,” he added about being a tanker.
Capt. Mike Donlin, the company’s forward air controller, said all of Bravo Co.’s Marines feel the same way.
“They are excited to be deployed and want to see the infantry ecstatic that ‘big brother’ is there for them,” Donlin said.
Col. John Shafer, commanding officer, Regimental Combat Team 6, recently spoke with Bravo Co.’s tankers. He said they arrived in country at a pivotal and transitional time in the fight, as Marines allow Afghan forces to take the lead in security operations. While Afghans will focus on maintaining security in safer areas, Marines will operate in less-secure areas of Helmand province — places that have had little to no coalition presence.
“You are going to stay busy,” Shafer told the Marines.
Capt. Matt Dowden, commanding officer, Bravo Co., said busy is how his “tougher than nails” Marines want to be. He said prior to
deployment his company wasn’t sure if tanks were going to be needed in Afghanistan any longer. But when they found out they’d be deploying, his Marines completed more than seven months of pre-deployment preparations in only four months.
“They almost enjoy breaking their backs to get the job done and they’re happy to be in Afghanistan doing what they trained to do,” Dowden said.
“They refuse to fail,” Donlin added.
Fourteen tanks make up Bravo Co. It’s a tight fit, but a four-Marine crew operates each tank.
“I don’t think it would be a good place for someone who is claustrophobic,” said Lance Cpl. Joshua Felder, a tank crewman.
In southern Afghanistan, the terrain Bravo Co. operates in varies from fine-powered sand commonly referred to as “moon dust” by the Marines, to coarse and rocky. Water irrigation channels, known as wadis, are scattered throughout the landscape and pose a hazard to the tanks.
“Being over here is like being on a different planet,” Quigley said. The terrain they’ve experienced so far in Afghanistan is nothing like where they trained, he added.
Even with the ever-changing landscape, Felder said the ride is surprisingly smooth. This is essential because tanks are designed so that Marines can aim in and fire on a target even on the move.
Responsibility for keeping the tanks running falls on the mechanics, and it’s no easy task.
Lance Cpl. Lucas Walsh, a Bravo Co. tank mechanic, said the routine maintenance on a tank that runs for two hours could be an all day ordeal.
With a machine as heavy as a tank crossing rough terrain upwards of 40 mph, bolts and hoses can get jostled loose. Beneath its armored exoskeleton, a tank is a web of wires, hydraulic lines and gear works.
“Finding a leak is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Walsh said.
On missions, mechanics are never far from the tanks they’re assigned to. They either drive M-88A2 “Hercules” recovery vehicles – tow trucks for tanks – or 7-ton trucks that carry tools and spare parts.
Both the mechanics and the operators don’t mind the long hours, or the cramped environment they often find themselves working in. They all say they want to make sure the infantry Marines in a fight know the tanks have their backs.
“It’s easier to replace parts than Marines,” Felder said.