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Tankers feel the heat in Iraq’s dog days of summer

8 Aug 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

There’s just no denying it.  It’s hot here.  But hot takes on a whole new meaning deep in the turret of an M-1A1 Main Battle Tank.

Marines from A Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 battle not just insurgents every time they climb into their tanks.  They fight a scorching heat that just melts Marines inside.

“At the end of the day, I can take off my skivvy shirt and ring it,” said Cpl. Osaree D. Russell, a 22-year-old from Apple Valley, Calif.  “It’s painful in there.”

Temperatures already topped 118 degrees Fahrenheit near Fallujah this summer, and there’s still several weeks of the hot summer days left.  Average temperatures hover around 115 degrees, and in any line of work, it makes life miserable.  But for tankers, it takes misery-by-heat to an art form.

“You could probably add 10-15 degrees inside that turret and maybe another five degrees for the flak,” Russell explained.  “You can stand on the turret and just feel the heat rising.”

At 6 a.m., when the morning air is relatively cool, the tank is still hot enough from the day prior to sting exposed skin.  The flat, angular panels of heavy steel absorb the heat all day and it continues to radiate.  To make things worse, radios and sights kick out heat from the electricity they require for operation.  Then there’s the 1,500-horsepower giant turbine engine encased in the rear.  If the wind is just right, it blows the oven-like blast of air right back over the tankers.

“If you aren’t drinking water, you’re done,” said Lance Cpl. Brandon C. Pollock, a 19-year-old from Bainbridge, Ga.

Russell said the worst it felt so far this summer was in early June when tanks moved to Habbaniyah, west of Fallujah, to support 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.  They relieved an Army armor unit.  The threat of insurgent snipers and improvised-explosive devices mean the tankers “buttoned up,” or closed their overhead hatches.  It was like putting the lid on a pot ready to boil.

“That was no fun,” Russell explained.  “We were in full gear.  The Army was looking at us like we were crazy because they just had on Second Chance vests.

“I drank all the water I had,” Russell added.  “That was in the first 20 minutes of a six-hour mission.  I almost went down as a heat casualty.”

A misconception most Marines have of the tank is that it has air conditioning.  In fact, it doesn’t have anything close.  Arguably the most technologically-advanced piece of ground fighting equipment ever produced by the United States doesn’t have what comes standard on most automobiles. 

In fact, humvees and nearly every other vehicle in Iraq have air conditioning.  Tankers are left to swelter.

“I actually asked once why we don’t have A/C,” Russell said.  “We had these officers come in and explain our new sight systems to us.  We can make a cooling system that freezes our sights, but not air conditioning.”

Still, tankers aren’t without their own tricks for staying cool.  They take along coolers of ice-cold water, just as every other convoy in the area.  Sweat towels for mopping off sweat-streaked faces are a must.  And when they deployed the tanks to Habbaniyah, Sgt. Crescencio T. Padilla, a 21-year-old tank commander from San German, Puerto Rico, said they improvised.

“We got little fans,” Padilla said.  “The Army had them in their tanks and we put them on the inside.  It was still hot, but at least we had some air.”

That’s not all they do though.  On particularly hot days, Padilla said they’ll open the breech to the 120 mm main gun, allowing the wind to blow down the barrel and through the turret. 

In a pinch, they put to use the tank’s nuclear, biological and chemical overpressure air system.  Each Marine’s station has a green hose and when the tank commander flips the switch, tankers shove the hose under their flak vests.

“It’s not cold air, but you mix air with sweat under a flak, and it works,” Padilla said.

But even that’s only a quick fix for a short duration.  The NBC system can easily overheat, so they use that option only when they absolutely need it.

“At the end of the day when we’re done, we’re completely covered in sweat,” Padilla added.  “It runs into your boots, your suit— and your flak is completely soaked.  And when it dries out, it’s just white salt rings all over.”

Tankers argue over who has it the worst inside the turret too.  Pollock said he suffers most in the driver’s compartment, where he lays nearly horizontal, encased in steel.  Russell, the tank’s gunner, said at least he has a fan, even if it does just blow recirculated hot air.  His position, deep inside the turret gets next to no air. 

“I’ve gotten out the gunner’s hole and took off my gear and got chills,” Russell said.  “That’s how much cooler it is on the outside of the tank.”

The loader and the tank commander can take advantage of an open hatch, allowing the breeze to pass by as they roll down the road.

It takes a toll on the crew too.

“It’s rough on everyone,” Russell said.  “Everyone gets pissed.  Everyone’s aggression goes up.  No one wants to talk.  It gets so hot, your body just doesn’t want to put up with it, and you start to fall asleep.”

Still, they don’t think much of the heat, even as it nags and wears on nerves and depletes their bodies of several quarts of water in a couple hours.

“Some people come to Iraq and get acclimatized to the heat,” Russell said.  “We get acclimatized to the turret.  It’s all different.  You’ve never felt heat like that.”