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Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Tanks' bulky presence helps keep the peace in Kirkuk

By Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Thursday, June 5, 2003

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The crew of Tank 6-9 of the 1st Infantry Division's Company C, 1st Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment prepares for a night patrol of Kirkuk, Iraq.


The M1A1 Abrams tanks, before an evening patrol of Kirkuk.


1st Lt. Wes Wilhite keeps in contact with the rest of the platoon from the turret of his M1A1 Abrams tank as it rolls through the streets of Kirkuk.


As Company C rumbles into the Iraqi dusk, children come out to wave to the passing tanks.


A portrait of Saddam Hussein stands at the entrance to the oil fields on the outskirts of Kirkuk.


A soldier mans the night vision scope-fitted gun atop of a humvee during an evening patrol. The glow at right is from burning gas at a nearby oil refinery.


A M1A1 Abrams tank stands guard on a Kirkuk street after a soldier of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was wounded by celebratory gunfire.


Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade search a car at a checkpoint, after a soldier was wounded by celebratory gunfire in Kirkuk.


Two men arrested at a checkpoint are questioned after a 173rd Airborne Brigade soldier was wounded by celebratory gunfire.


An M1A1 Abrams tank, seen through night vision goggles as it patrols the streets on the outskirts of Kirkuk.


Company commander Capt. Joel Fischer, left, and platoon leader 1st Lt. Wes Wilhite go over the night's action during a post-patrol review.

KIRKUK, Iraq — It wasn’t the mere sighting of tracer fire that concerned 1st Lt. Wes Wilhite as he commanded a platoon of M1A1 Abrams tanks through the streets of Kirkuk.

It was the fact that he’d spotted it twice, in the same location, just as the 70 tons of U.S. military steel and firepower approached the same downtown area.

“That seems fishy to me,” said Wilhite, the 23-year-old leader of Platoon Blue Falcon, of Company C, 1st Battalion of the 63rd Armored Regiment — the quick-reaction force team of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division out of Vilseck, Germany.

“It’s just too coincidental to be dead random. My gut says they’re marking we’re here.”

Twice, as the tanks rumbled past the same spot in downtown Kirkuk, gunshots popped off, marked by the occasional illuminated tracer that pierced the night sky.

The Kurds of Kirkuk were celebrating that Wednesday night, firing weapons into the air, as is common practice in the Middle East, after having won the mayoral seat on the newly elected provincial government.

“Blue 6 to Blue 8,” Wilhite radioed to his lead tanker. “Did you see that?”

“Roooooger that,” came a calm voice over the head phones. It was Staff Sgt. James Allsup, 34, one of the tank commanders.

The crew had heard the celebration, lots of it. During all that celebrating, one U.S. soldier was injured, having taken a round to his armpit.

Blue Falcon aborted its reconnaissance mission, and the four Abrams raced down the streets of Kirkuk to augment patrolling forces, trying to keep calm. The tanks can travel “exactly 69 kilometers an hour,” Wilhite said.

Try as they might, they can’t seem to push the mammoth metal beasts any faster.

“It’s hard when you hear one of your own is hit, but it keeps you focused on the mission,” said company commander Capt. Joel Fischer.

Abrupt mission shifts aren’t the exception in combat, they’re the rule, Fischer said.

On May 28, Blue Falcon set off at 2000 hours for a routine, two-hour reconnaissance of the perimeter of the Kirkuk airfield, scouring the countryside for unexploded ordnance and former Iraqi army weapons. Because of the celebratory fire inside the city, its mission that day didn’t end until well after midnight.

But while on patrol, they found what they’d been looking for: one 37 mm and a couple of 57 mm anti-aircraft guns, one of the bigger guns still intact.

Along the way, excited children flocked to the roadside, waving hellos, flashing victory signs. The crew never tires of the “victory marches,” as they call them.

Life as a tanker is anything but easy, but soldiers who sign up for the gig wouldn’t have it any other way, some said.

It’s especially hard on the knees — three of four tank commanders of Platoon Blue Falcon have had knee surgery (the fourth being a mere 23 years old).

“Give me time,” Wilhite joked, who has not put his knees under the knife.

“You gotta be hungry for what you do,” Allsup said. “And we’re hungry.”

Riding, especially shotgun in the turret, beats being infantry, they joked.

“We don’t like to walk,” Wilhite, who hails from Milwaukee, said with a chuckle.

It’s hard on the mind, especially for the gunner who sits for hours in tank temperatures that often peak above 120 degrees, said Sgt. Lindell Montgomery, the gunner in Wilhite’s tank.

“Aw, shucks, you get used to it,” Montgomery said of the sweltering, cramped gun pit.

Day or night, the high-tech, high-powered gunner’s scope magnifies the outside world up to 30 times and the gunner constantly reports the details to the tank commander.

“I see a guy on the roof of the building at 2 o’clock,” Montgomery said, giving the position of a building in relation to the tank. “He’s lying prone on the roof. Looks like he’s sleeping.”

The gun barrel swiveled and maintained a visual on the sleeping man, who, in the end, posed no threat to the tank crew.

The 16-men platoons typically run all missions together, building a rapport that gels them like family.

“It makes it a lot easier to know how another guy is going to react to different situations,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Williamson, a soldier for 20 years.

More importantly, tankers try to stay sharp even when the doldrums of repetition could dull them.

“When it’s not ‘Groundhog Day,’ it’s wonderful,” joked tank commander Staff Sgt. Phillip Johnson, 31, referring to a movie in which the lead character relives the same day over and over.

And tankers are staunch believers in superstitions; for example, avoiding eating apricots before moving out for fear the tanks will break down.

And, well, women on board tends to bring bad luck, but apparently female reporters just might be the anomaly. If they want it to rain, they eat the Charms candies from their Meals Ready to Eat. It hasn’t worked, so far.

But the mighty tankers didn’t eat apricots before heading out – and that night’s patrol, though peppered with the sporadic rush of adrenaline, ended safely for the soldiers of Blue Falcon.

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