FORT IRWIN, Calif.—The battle erupted with artillery that sent shock waves for miles across the desert pass. Then the big M1 Abrams tank main guns roared and Bradley fighting vehicles unleashed volleys from their 25 mm cannons.
Dust flew on a ridge as foot soldiers opened up with machine guns to prevent the enemy from getting around behind them.
It was only practice, but practice with a sharp edge, given the buildup for a possible war with Iraq that these soldiers may be called on to fight. As the men watched through binoculars, one of them, Persian Gulf War veteran 1st Sgt. Mark Schoch, said, "This is exactly the same way it looks" in a real desert battle.
For two hours one recent day, about 1,500 Army soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Riley, Kan., fired live rounds along a dug-in defensive front that stretched nearly 7 miles.
Fort Irwin's National Training Center, with more than 600,000 remote acres, is a prime site for realistic training.
The targets that pop up are plywood, but the rounds are real. The tanks fire high-velocity shells that can pierce the armored turret of an enemy tank more than 2 miles away, with catastrophic effects.
During the defensive exercise, about 15 Abrams tanks hid in trenches. The tanks rolled up, fired quickly, then rolled back down for protection.
During another exercise, crews used explosives to blast away razor-sharp concertina wire and simulated minefields set up as obstacles. Engineer crews and tanks with mine-clearing plows opened safe lanes toward an imaginary enemy.
Earlier, in a briefing, Capt. Kevin Admiral told the soldiers to seize the opportunity: "You come here to kill the enemy. Kill it."
As they prepared for the exercise, infantrymen wiped their rifles and machine guns with oily rags. They brushed off dust and particles of sand. The fine sand, ground to a talcum-powder consistency by the heavy tanks, can clog firing mechanisms, and a jammed weapon can cost a soldier his life.
The foot soldiers, ages 18 to 23, had nearly run out of cigarettes, so they shared one, passing it around.
Pvt. Andrew Matthews, 20, of Fresno, Calif., checked his bipod-mounted M240 machine gun. He pronounced it "field clean," good to fire, but not "inspection clean."
After all the preparation, the men get to push the buttons and pull the triggers. Some tank crews play pounding heavy-metal music to accompany the live fire exercise.
"There's a big rush for the whole crew when you're firing live gun rounds," said Spc. Clifford Frederick, 23, of Lawrenceburg, Ind. "It's just rocking that tank."
"That's such an awesome machine," said Army Sgt. David Garvie, an armored personnel carrier driver watching a 70-ton Abrams tank zoom by.
The tank is more than a killing machine. In training and in combat, it's a mobile home for its four crew members.
"We really grow attached to our vehicles," said 1st Lt. Wayne Keeler. "It's our house."
Crews sleep in and on their tanks. They don't mind the rigid armor beneath their sleeping bags, especially if they lie near the engine. It provides warmth on cold nights. The crews call the smelly steel deck over the engine the griddle. They use the exhaust grill to heat water and rations. The turret provides a rack for storing duffel bags and sleeping bags.
Although only a machine, each tank takes on a personality in the minds of its crew. Keeler, the stocky, blue-eyed tanker lieutenant, and his crew named their rig the Brian Boru, after an ancient, stubborn Irish warrior. The name is painted onto the side of the main gun barrel.
Keeler, a 35-year-old Bravo Company executive officer from Detroit, said that when he trained for extended periods, he missed his wife, two young daughters and 10-year-old dog. But the tank is his favorite workplace, and it helps to keep homesickness away.
1st Lt. Chris Berg, 26, a wiry tank platoon leader from Milbank, S.D., said of his rig, named Benchmark: "With our thermal sight, we can see a field mouse at 100 meters—see its tail."
The turret offers just enough room for three men to squeeze in around one another. The driver, who sits in a reclining position below and in front of the turret, pilots the tank at speeds upward of 50 mph. The gunner, loader and commander share the turret and coordinate efforts by radios in their helmets.
As tough as the tank is, the desert wears on it. Crews must regularly clean air filters and replace grease in fittings to protect against the sand and dust.
The hidden depressions and boulders that mark the desert can be tough on tank crews as well. A hard jolt, with no warning, can dislocate a crewman's shoulder, says Spc. Mike Bowles, a 24-year-old tank driver from Flagstaff, Ariz.
A driver must stay alert and warn his crewmates when an obstacle that can't be avoided suddenly appears, he said. "You just let those guys know to hold on."
Military officials say elements of the 1st Armored Division have been alerted for possible deployment to the Persian Gulf theater. If the call comes to the 3rd Brigade at Fort Riley, they intend to be ready.
(Potter reports for the Wichita Eagle.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+training