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Clockwise from top left, 1st Lieutenant John Neail, tank commander, Cpl. Christian Bills, gunner, Lance Cpl. Robert Benaridez driver, Lance Cpl. Patrick Bellinger, loader, the crew for the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank named “Star Lord” participated in Desert Scimitar aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. Desert Scimitar enables 1st Marine Division to test and refine its command and control capabilities and ensures 1st Marine Division units remain committed to consistently improving the quality of their training efforts and their resultant warfighting capabilities.

Photo by Sgt. Christopher J. Moore

“Star Lord” blasts through Desert Scimitar

11 May 2015 | Sgt. Christopher J. Moore 1st Marine Division

The sound of 70-ton tracked machines interrupted the calm hush of the desert as tank after tank rolled over the rugged terrain. They held their formation as they advanced toward anotional enemy position, firing their 120 mm main gun along the way.

It was all in a day’s work for Marines with Company A, 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Particularly the crew for a tank named “Star Lord” as they rolled through the desert during Exercise Desert Scimitar 2015.

A tank’s success on the battlefield is defined by the teamwork of its four crewmen, who each play a vital role, said 1st Lt. John Neail, the tank commander for “Star Lord.” A tanker usually begins his career in the driver’s position or in the loader’s position. The driver pilots the tank through all types of terrain and he helps the loader and gunner with maintenance before and after a mission.

“There’s nothing like being a tanker,” said Lance Cpl. Robert Benaridez, the driver for “Star Lord” and a native of Northridge, California. “I get to drive a 70-ton monster through the desert and hear a cannon go off right over my head. There is no other experience like that.”

While the driver ensures the tank arrives on the battlefield, the loader “brings the boom” to the front. The team relies on the loader to ensure the main gun is ready to fire. He has only seconds to prepare the cannon for fire.

“My job as a loader is to make sure the tank commander’s .50 caliber machine is loaded at all times, the gunner’s coax machine gun isn’t jammed and of course loading the 120 mm main gun round,” said Lance Cpl. Patrick Bellinger, the loader for Star Lord, and a native of Houston, Texas.

Being a tanker is difficult in any position on the team, but the Marines who excel in their jobs gain greater responsibility as gunners and tank commanders.

For a tanker to work his way to the gunner’s position, he must be tactically proficient in the driver and loader position first. The gunner is the second in command and is responsible for targeting any threats that cross the main gun’s path.

“Corporal Christian Bills is my gunner and he is very intelligent and a quick learner,” Neail said. “There isn’t anyone else I would want for the job.”

The tank commander assumes leadership and responsibility for the vehicle and crew. He also gives the command to fire the main gun round and ensures everyone understands the mission.

“The first thing a tank commander is going to do is put all the different positions together for the vehicle and orchestrating it to make it one,” said Neail, a native of Palm Desert, California.

The armored tank seems to demand respect from any challenger and it is up to the tank crew to keep their vehicle running smoothly.

The crew on the “Star Lord” are just a small part of an entire tank battalion participating in Exercise Desert Scimitar. They continue to hone their craft to ensure their vehicles remain operational, keep accurate and timely fire on targets, and most importantly, protect the Marines on the battlefield who need the direct fire support.

1st Marine Division