I'm Teddy Nelsen, currently 29 years old, about 20% legally disabled, married, but not for much longer, and unemployed.
Before all this happened, I was a policeman in Harlan, a middle-sized West Virginia town. I was also in the Army Reserves as a Tank Gunner. Like most people during 2002 I read the papers and watched the news at night, so it was no big surprise when my unit got activated during the run-up to the second Gulf war.
The orders came down and we were scheduled to leave for a twelve-month tour in early January, 2003. Amy and I had been forced to wait to get married until I got settled in my career and we could afford to set up in a house and all. And I had done some time away at training. And Amy had been forced to deal with some serious illnesses in her family, but we were all past that now. Well, Amy and I were still newlyweds when I got activated, so having to leave tore us both up. We had some wild farewell sex and tearful farewells. We'd only been married 8 months.
Amy was a shy pretty little blonde that I've known almost all of my life. She was my high school sweetheart and we had both been virgins when we finally made love after graduation. She and her Mom and Dad, Corinne and Floyd, along with my older sister Janet are the only family that I have. When the time came to ship out, there were lots of promises to write, but I knew that wasn't gonna happen. None of them were big on letter-writing.
So off we went. After sitting in Kuwaiti bunkers at night and tearing around the Kuwaiti desert on maneuvers by day for two months, we finally got some action orders. I didn't know how my tankmates felt, but I had a hard, sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. This would be my first time in combat, and I just prayed that I would not let my guys and my country down. I hoped that I would not turn coward if things went badly. You never can know for sure until the time comes, I thought.
We went across the border shortly after Baghdad got hit by the big "Shock and Awe" bombardment. We weren't in the news, but we were in the first offensive strike. We were probing the Iraqi defenses. What kinds of tank strength did they have? We had very little Intel from inside Iraq.
My tank was out ahead of our line on the far right. I'm not bragging when I say we had the best electronics in the world. Flat out fact! Our sights incorporated long distance infrared technology, meaning we could detect the heat signature of a tank at a considerable distance; I think the true range may still be classified.
Anyway, I saw the signatures of two tanks off to our right. I signaled the Skipper and he tapped our driver, Jubal, to stop. I looked them over and showed Skip the images. It looked like they were turned toward the east. He signaled our find back to our line commander by tight beam infrared. Undetectable.
I was surprised that I could see them plain as day and they had no clue we were there. They were old technology tanks: Soviet 1972 style. T-72's for short. We had conflicting reports on how our cannon would do against their armor and vice versa. I said something about that to Skip as he was copying the response back from the line commander.
He said, "We are sure as fuck about to find out, Nelly. We're going at them. This fucking war is officially on. Load AP." That last was to Pete, my loader, who let out a "WHOOP!" Skip and Pete were real mountain boys, born hell-raisers.
AP's were Armor Piercing rounds. The hope was that they would penetrate their armor and blow up the inside. If I hit them, of course.
We were on the move and closing as fast as Jubal could drive in the moonlight. I still don't think they'd detected us electronically.
In the night air sound carries quite a distance and a tank going hard is a damned noisy thing. There's a reason we wear ear protective headsets. If they were unbuttoned and on lookout they'd have heard us for certain.
I kept the tank on the right in my sights. I saw the flare of a cannon firing, but it was aimed to the side, toward the general direction of Kuwait. I guess their Intel was that we were coming straight at them, which was sorta true, but they figured the attack had to come directly from the east, so they were firing that way on general principles. Once they fired, Skipper tapped me on the shoulder and I returned fire. My first round was slightly over. Pete reloaded fast. My second was direct on the base of the turret. Big green bloom of an explosion in the scope...
As Pete reloaded, I slid my aiming point slightly left. That target began to move, trying to take evasive action and turn toward us. The commander was no dummy. He saw that my first shot was over and figured correctly that we were coming from his right. Made no difference. I put one directly on his front, just short and maybe a tad to the left of center. He fired back at us, but he still didn't have us acquired. Just shooting by guess and by God. Or Allah.
My second shot got him just under the cannon. I could see the turret rock from an explosion inside. Then I saw him jolt from another round hitting him, but it wasn't from me.
The next tank to our left had followed us and had winged off a shot themselves to be in on the kill.
Our targets were burning and blowing up. The Skipper stopped and we went up to check it out. Oh, my what a sight it was; they lit up the night sky. Off to our left we heard other tank-to-tank duels going on.
We were ordered to veer slightly left and move forward, but we saw no more enemy tanks worth shooting at. We did see quite a few of them hauling ass away from us.
The results of that night's action answered half the question. That 30 year old armor of theirs could not withstand our AP rounds. We still didn't know what their stuff would do to ours because they hadn't made a hit on any of ours yet.
Somebody higher up took the kill credit for tank number two away from us and awarded it to the party crashers on the left, but the next echelon up rolled that partially back and made it a joint kill. There was some talk about a unit citation medal for my tank. We were probably the first unit to make a kill in the ground operation, but nothing ever came of that.
Neither Skip nor I saw anyone get out of the two tanks we blew up. That was my first experience as a killer of men and although it was long distance and impersonal, I still had a hard time getting a decent nights sleep for many months unless I was plumb exhausted.
I didn't even know how many men I might have killed.
We had four-man crews, but I didn't know if the Iraqis did the same. Nor did I really want to know. Two times three or four men? One and a half times three or four men? Either way, they were still dead and I had pulled the trigger. Sobering shit, but I guess every soldier has to feel that.
None of that bothered Skip, Jubal, or Pete. Like I said, they were mountain people and came from a long tradition of violence and killing. The Hatfields and the McCoys had nothing on their families up in the hills of West Virginia. And if there weren't blood feuds, there were Government Revenue Agents to harass and rough up. There were many Revenuers who had to be retired with crippling injuries.
With that kind of background, my crewmen, particularly Skip and Pete were hard-assed men. I was a soft city boy compared to them. Jubal was just Jubal.
Not too long after that, our unit was at the tail end of the big Marine armored push to Baghdad; the one that got bogged down by sandstorms.
I killed my next man during that nasty time, in late March 2003. My loader Pete and I got sent up topside as lookouts as we sat waiting for orders to start moving again. Which we knew damned well weren't gonna come during that sandstorm. We were almost totally blinded by the sand and our electronics sights were just as bad as our eyes. Our goggles protected our eyes, and we had infrared night vision capability but we were still blind-assed lookouts! The fucking sand!
We heard a noise on Pete's side, and he climbed down the side of the tank to go looking around. I couldn't barely see him as he moved a few feet away. Then I couldn't see anything. Pete had a headset in his helmet, like me, and he whispered to me, telling me what he was doing as he looked around. Well, felt around was more like it, I guess. He said he was checking along the side, and then around the back. Then he was silent. I had no way of knowing where he had gotten to.
I heard three shots from Pete's weapon. Very distinctive sounds, our carbines vs their Kalishnikovs! Still no clue where the shots were, front or back or either side. The sandstorm just muffled everything down.
Then I saw a dim form coming up, climbing the treads on the left side. The outline was dim, but it was wearing a helmet. It looked like Pete.
But there was something not quite right. To this day I can't tell you what. There was no point in saying anything in the helmet comm, because the guy was five feet from me. I went on my gut instinct and I shot him. The man dropped out of sight with a cry.
Then Pete was scrambling up beside me, asking what I was shooting at. I breathed a quick prayer of thanks to Whoever. He said that in the slight lee of the tank, he'd seen some men trying to get near us with something, probably explosives and he had pegged a few shots at them. They took off into the murky nothingness surrounding us.
.... There is more of this story ...