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Skinny Bird's small size an advantage when driving a 70-ton Abrams tank

NORTHERN KUWAIT—At 5 feet 6 inches, 110 pounds, Spc. Anthony Lemanquais might be the smallest man in 1st Battalion, 13th Armor. His tank crew has nicknamed him "Skinny Bird."

But he uses his size to his advantage when driving a 70-ton M-1A1 Abrams tank.

The 24-year-old from Torrington, Conn., can twist and turn his body at ease in the cramped driver's hole.

From a seat that reclines at a 45-degree angle, he steers with a T-bar that resembles a motorcycle handlebar. As massive as the tank is, "It pretty much turns on a dime," he said.

A small lever shifts the tank's automatic transmission. He has gotten the tank up to 50 mph. One day on the way to a firing range, the tank's brakes failed when a pin came loose. Fortunately, on flat terrain the tank was going about 5 mph and coasted to a stop.

From his cockpit down in the hull, his job is to keep the tank from unexpectedly running into holes, which can jolt the three men in the turret.

"He can hurt the people up top if he messes up," said Lemanquais' tank commander, Staff Sgt. Christopher Warren, 24, of St. Louis, Mo.

Once while training as a loader, Lemanquais broke his hand. His driver didn't see a pit. The sudden jolt threw him and the other two men around inside the turret.

Most of the time, though, a tank ride is gentle, like a stout boat smoothly rolling up and down waves.

Now, Lemanquais' tank unit is preparing to head possibly to Baghdad as part of the 1st Armored Division's 24th Mechanized Infantry.

Down in his driver's hole, he has taped pictures. He also keeps a photo album with pictures of his smiling wife and playful dog.

One picture fixed to the wall has special meaning. It shows John Wayne wearing a cowboy hat, pointing a revolver and sporting that famous scowl.

"My grandfather brought me up, and he was a big John Wayne fan, and it kind of rubbed off on me," he said. The picture "is pretty much a symbolic representation of my grandfather being with me, helping me through."

He also draws comfort from snacks crammed in his cockpit. He munches on pastries, potato chips, crackers, canned sausages and a sports drink. "As small as I am, I can't afford not to" snack, he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):