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