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Marines offer a peep under the hatch to life in a tank

27 Mar 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

There are no secrets for Marines working and living inside the Corps’ biggest chunk of armor on the battlefield.

Marine tankers from Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 offered a glimpse into the life inside the M-1A1 Main Battle Tank.  Beyond the super-power scope, thermal imaging systems, 120 mm main gun and whining engine of the 70-ton behemoth, Marines live unlike others.  The four-man crew, living in tight, confined spaces, ride across the battlefield like Roman centurions on chariots, rib their fellow crewmembers endlessly and love and hate the machine that creates their identity.

“To be a tanker, you’ve got to be someone who’s self-motivated and physically strong for the maintenance,” said Staff Sgt. Samuel M. Hidey, a 30-year-old platoon sergeant from New Philadelphia, Ohio.  “You’ve got to be able to adjust quickly to changes from driver to gunner and loader to tank commander.”

So far, it seemed like just about any other role in the Marine Corps.  That changed, though, when Hidey spoke about what he’s done with tanks in the seven months he’s been deployed to Iraq.  He said his company put on twice or maybe triple the average mileage expected for a tank in seven months.  He’s driven them up towering berms and sped them across open farm fields, the throttle screaming wide open.  He’s pivoted them through tight alleys in the city and used the sheer size of the tank to show insurgents exactly who is boss.

“I don’t think we could have driven them harder than we have here,” Hidey explained.  “We’ve slammed them through irrigation ditches and pulled them up berms.  We bring the shock and awe.”

Tankers, almost to a man, will answer that the best part of their job is firing the main gun.  It’s a long tube jutting out from the hull, sweeping side-to-side and staying absolutely level when the tank is jostling about over rough terrain.

“The best part?  That’s busting the main gun down range,” Hidey said. 

“We have the most awesome direct-fire weapon on the ground,” added Sgt. Roberto Matuzzo, a 22-year-old from Philadelphia.  “Every time I fire it, it feels like the first time.  It’s good knowing we bring that show of force to the table.”

Still, they know they’re a breed of Marine unto their own.  They don’t wear the digital camouflaged uniforms like infantry.  Instead, the wear fire retardant one-piece suits specially designed for tankers.  They name their beasts.  Normally, gunners name the tanks, but Hidey’s platoon went with a platoon theme – Latin names.  Matuzzo’s tank was named “Iratus,” Latin for wrathful. 

Tankers don’t march to a cadence, but roll along to the crunching of the enormous treads.  It creates misconceptions, they know.  Some, they’re constantly living down.

“The grunts probably see us as someone who just rides along and doesn’t have to hump a lot,” Hidey said.  “A lot of them think we have air conditioning.  They probably think we’re a bunch of clowns.”

In fact, Matuzzo explained the tankers endure elevated temperatures.  The crews’ spaces heat to an additional 20 degrees above the exterior temperature, he said.  Add on the bulky flak vest with small-arms protective inserts all around in the middle of the Iraqi desert sun and it means for a lot of sweat. 

“It takes a little bit of guts, like anything else in the Marine Corps,” Matuzzo said.

Matuzzo added he thought most Marines probably see him as a “grease monkey on wheels.”  That estimate might not be that far off.   Textbook estimates put two hours of maintenance for every one hour of operation.  He said that doesn’t come near how it feels.

“It feels like for every 10 hours we operate, we put in a hundred hours of maintenance,” he said.  “The tank is a pain in the ass.  It requires a lot of love, but if you show it love, it’ll love you back.”

Others put it differently.

“You love them like your dream car,” Hidey explained.  “But sometimes, you feel she doesn’t love you back.”

Hidey said he’s seen tanks working perfectly when they shut everything down.  A couple hours later, it doesn’t want to start.  There are constant problems, requiring innovation and patience.  Sometimes, it just takes a straight mean attitude.

“There’s a lot more hate than love,” said Lance Cpl. Scott F. Powers, a 19-year-old from Hillsborough, N.H.  “There’s a lot of sweat and blood that goes into it.  You treat her right and she’ll still piss you off.”

No matter how much frustration, the tank is part of who they are.  The angular, squatting behemoth is more a living, breathing creature than it is machine. 

“It’s like a fifth crewmember,” Mazutto said. 

“You actually become just like a tank,” Hidey explained.  “I have friends who name their pets after the things.  They have dogs named ‘Tank.’  They have cats named ‘Coax.’” after the tank’s coaxially-mounted machine gun.

“I even had a Marine tell me one time, ‘You look like a tanker,’” Hidey added.  “I guess it’s because we look old, rugged, hair falling out and always hurting.”

The pain isn’t just because of the physical labor involved in wielding bulky parts and lumbering tools.  Marines in the tank learn to build a thick skin against the constant ribbing of their crew while sitting in an observation post. 

“I’ve been out on 96-hour OPs and on Day 2 it usually starts,” Hidey said.  “There’s constant ripping on each other and dogging each other out.  You just find ways to pass the time.”

Matuzzo cracks jokes on one Marine in his crew who swears he sees UFOs in Iraq.

“I think he’s been out here too long,” he said.

Usually, three Marines gang up on the fourth, finding that last nerve and jump-roping with it.

“Most times, it isn’t that bad, but there’s nothing you can do to escape it,” Powers said.  “You ride it until someone gets really mad.  That’s our entertainment.”

But there’s bonding that happens in a tank that’s unusual.  Marines tell the same story a hundred times, to the point where others finish it and can tell when the latest version is exaggerated from the original. 

“This is our family here,” Powers explained.  “We know everything about our past and future plans.  We know each others likes and dislikes.”

Matuzzo admitted to spending more off time with his Marines from the tank then he ever did with his brother before he joined the Marine Corps. 

“Being so close, you learn the Marines inside and out,” Hidey added.  “You see sides you wouldn’t expect to see.  You know you can always count on the other guys.”

It’s a bond that even death doesn’t break.  Lance Cpl. Jason T. Little was killed Jan. 7, 2005, when his tank was struck by an improvised explosive device.  He was 20-years-old.  His name now appears on the turrets of the tanks of his platoon.

It’s a special place of honor for him given by his Marines.

“It’s a good feeling to know he’s not forgotten,” Matuzzo said.  “We remember him in a good way, in all his glory.”

For all the hardships, gripes, complaints and disdain the tankers sometimes have, none would trade their role.  They’re proud of the grease-stained uniforms and skinned knuckles from hours of turning wrenches.  They hate the Marines around them sometimes, but trust them with their lives.  They know each other better than they know themselves and beyond the heartaches and jokes, they’re a crew with a genuine love for their lot in the Marine Corps. 

“It drives you crazy sometimes,” Matuzzo said. “But that’s the nature of the beast.  There are no secrets in a tank crew.”