The biggest surprise I got out of the Mojave Desert was that the middle of nowhere has a zip code. In this case, the middle of nowhere is Ft. Irwin, California.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s either Heaven on Earth or Hell. For the United States Army, it can be both. Back in my day, Ft. Irwin, California (also known as NTC – National Training Center) is where an Army division went to train in some of the most horrible

Fort_Irwin_National_Training_Center_-_Welcome_sign_-_1
Welcome sign to Ft. Irwin.

situations imaginable. There are sand storms, heat, cold, rugged terrain . . . Hmmm, sounds a little like Iraq and Afghanistan! And oh, there’s an OpFor (Opposition Forces) just waiting to kick your butt. They fought using Soviet doctrine and in equipment that had  performance capabilities as what the Soviets might have.

And those OpFor guys were good. Heck, Rommel and Patton would have had their hands full with them.

I was the first of the MPI investigators to go with 1st Infantry Division out to NTC. Since I was the first, there was no real definition of my mission. Indeed, while division was out eating dust, I was sitting back at the PMO (Provost Marshall’s Office – think city Police Station and you get a good idea what it is and does). I slept in a holding cell and was on call 24 hours a day.

Once in a great while, I’d go out and investigate some small matter. Usually it was nothing more exciting than someone caught stealing something or other. I’d write up the report and fax it to the PMO at Ft. Riley.

About halfway through the rotation, that changed drastically.

I was asleep in my jail cell when the PMO dispatcher woke me up.

“There’s been an accident out at one of the ranges. They want you and the division safety officers to get out there right away.”

“What happened?”

“A tank fired up an APC (Armored Personel Carrier).”

Jesus, I thought. It was a real prayer. An APC vs a tank round! It wasn’t much of a contest.

“They’re med-evacing the casualties to the base hospital.”

An accident on the range wasn’t a good thing. I’d heard of some of the accidents out at NTC. A lot of them were associated with movement. One I’d heard of had happened at night. A column of M1 Abrams tanks were moving across the desert. The lead tank was a little lost, and in the process of trying to get sorted out, managed to drive right off into a ravine. The tank fell and landed upside down. The driver, hung upside down, screamed for help (both the TC and gunner were out cold). The tank behind him, rather that stopping to sort out what had happened, went straight over the ravine and landed on top of the upside down tank.

There were also stories of people run over in the dark, or even during the day. The truth is the battlefield, even a mock one, is a rough place to be. In the Gulf War, we had more people killed in stupid accidents than due to enemy fire. Just the week before, I’d investigated an accident where a Humvee missed a bridge, overturned and killed the driver and passenger.

Now this. I couldn’t imagine any casualties living long.

I got into uniform–BDUs and full combat gear to include an M-16 that didn’t work. I walked out to where the safety officers were staying. They had a nice room compared to mine. I suppose rank has its perks.

After several knocks, one of them came to the door.

Since we were the outcasts of the 1st Infantry Division, any pretense at rank had disappeared a long time ago.

“Rich, what’s going on?” Capt. M asked.

“We’ve had an accident out at the live fire range.”

He blinked, trying to wake up. Finally, he asked what happened. I told him. His remark was a lot more colorful than mine.

“Come in. Make some coffee. It’s going to be a long night.”

He rousted his partner and the two officers quickly began getting dressed while I made the coffee. They opened a box of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and tossed me a couple. I quickly stuffed them into my cargo pockets.

“Do we know what happened?”

I was in the dark as to the cause of the accident and said so.

A few minutes later we left the BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters) and loaded up in their Ford Explorer. We drove through the night out into the desert. I sat in back, looking out at the stars. Out here there was very little light pollution, and the stars shone with a brilliance I hadn’t seen in some time. I let my eyes trace over the old constellations and before too long, I’d fallen asleep.

I woke up as we stopped and peered out the back. Captain L, the other division safety officer said, “I’ll be right back.”

He jumped out and ran into a small trailer house like structure.

“Sleep well?” Captain M asked.

“I must have needed it.”

“I’d have done the same,” he said. The sun hadn’t come up yet, and it was almost pitch black outside. When Captain L came back, he had something in his hand. He got in and put it in small cassette player.

“You got to hear this,” he said.

He turned the volume up to the max, and we could hear radio chit chat between the FIST (Fire Support Team) and the tanks. The FIST called targets and the tanks engaged them. About three minutes into the tape, a sudden cry cut over the radio circuit.

“Cease fire! Cease Fire! We’re hit! We’re hit! My God, we’re hit! Cease . . .”

The cry cut off in mid sentence, and other voices crying “cease fire” cut across the recording.

“Officers from that company will be meeting us at the site,” Captain L said.

As we drove away, Captain L reached into a map case and pulled out some Little Debbie snack cakes. I was getting hungry so took one. We had warm soda to wash it down with.

The sun was just rising when we got to the site. I seem to recall the site had a name, but I’ll be damned if I can remember it today. There was plenty of evidence of tanks, I could see their tracks. But the only M1A1 left behind was the one that had fired the shot.

On a small ridge maybe five hundred yards away was the FIST. Even from here I could see the damage. It was blackened. On the machine gun mount on top had been an M-60 machine gun, which had melted into almost an upside down “V.”

“They got the fire under control quickly,” Capt. L said.  It must have been seriously hot to melt the M-60 like it did. “When doing a live fire exercise, they always send brush trucks out in case a fire gets going.”

A couple of HUMVEEs were already parked, and several enlisted men and officers were waiting for us.

We went to work right away. I looked at the gun tube on the tank and noticed a red paint transfer on the tube. The transfer came from the firing stakes pounded into the ground in front of it. What the stakes were supposed to do was mark the left and right fields of fire. This was strictly for safety purposes. Anything within that field of fire was assumed to be a legitimate target.

What  was obvious was the right hand stake was loose. I touched it and it moved. Being a country boy, and having pounded in a few fence posts (all the stakes were at least 10 feet), I knew they shouldn’t move. The left stake was solid indicating it had been buried down well. The right not so well. Indeed, the small wings that were supposed to be in the ground were at ground top level.

It was very obvious what had happened. When someone went to pound it in, they must have hit a rock and thought that was as deep as it needed to be. That was the big cause of what went wrong.

“Here’s how this works,” a major explained to me. “The tank keeps its gun tube between the stakes. It fires, rolls back, reloads, and then drives forward again. It fires, rolls back, and the process keeps on going.”

He pointed down into the small valley. There were tracks with tank like structures on them. “The tracks represent tanks closing on this position. They have seconds to acquire a target, fire, and move back.”

It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see what had happened. Every time the tank moved back or came forward, the gun tube was rubbing on the range stake. So its field of fire was slowly getting larger and larger until suddenly, the FIST was now in the target area. I got some pictures of the tube and stake and then the Major and I climbed into the tank.

Getting in confirmed something I’d always suspected. An M1A1 tank is nothing more than a suit of clothes made for three to wear at the same time. Take a 6 foot 6 guy and stuff him into a place a Munchkin would get claustrophobic in and you get an idea how uncomfortable it was.

“This is spacious compared to older tanks,” the Major said. I took his word for it.

He brought up the systems and replayed the motions the tank had gone through. It confirmed what we’d suspected.

I was more than happy to get out of that tank.

The safety officers and I then drove over to the FIST. The FIST had once been an M113, a small, lightly armored vehicle meant for scout work, moving troops, and such. In the FIST role, it would have had a map table, radios, and such. Its job was to call in targets.

M113A1
An example of an M113, somewhat like the one fired up at NTC.

In essence, it was a lightly armored, mobile office from which to do the job of fighting a war.

Now, it looked more like a soda can that had been burnt in a fire. The top was gone, and I was able to see the machine gun had indeed melted. The inside was nothing but charred metal. Firefighting foam surrounded it in a pink puddle.

“They were hit with a Sabot round,” the Major explained. “Thank God it went low.”

He motioned me over to the side that faced the tank, and pointed between the the tracks. The round had gone between two of the wheels, and into the engine compartment under the main body of the M113. It had melted a hole, maybe six inches across.

“Do you know how a sabot works?” the major asked.

“I think I’m about to find out, Sir.”

Damage
Example of the entry hole created by a sabot.

I had a vague idea how one worked, and his lecture confirmed it. “A sabot works this way. When it’s fired, it sheds the outer faring, and then continues down range till it hits a target. The front of the round is shaped like a needle. When the round impacts something, it pretty well stops, but that energy has to go someplace. What happens is the energy is converted to heat. Lots of it. It effectively melts the round into a plasma, but the needle portion is designed to survive long enough to focus the heated metal into an almost beam. That melts through the armor, and is sprayed into the interior of the tank or bunker. It raises the temperature inside to that of the surface of the sun and pretty well vaporizes whatever is in there.”

No wonder the inside was burnt the way it was. “Had that round hit a foot or so higher, there probably wouldn’t have been much left of the crew to pick up.”

Finished, we drove back to base, and I wrote up a quick report of the incident and faxed that to Ft. Riley.

The safety officers were going to talk to the crew of the tank that had fired the round, and I agreed to interview the men who had been running the FIST.

One of the MPs drove me over to the hospital, and it was a few minutes before I was able to see the crew. The medics and nurses were nice enough to get them together in one room, making my job easy.

The men were all sitting up, and bandages hid the worst of their injuries, but still it was obvious they’d been through some serious trauma. Not a one of them had eyebrows, and their hair was singed or even gone in places. Some had small facial cuts.

The most seriously injured seemed to be the young Lieutenant (referred to as LT) who had been in command of the FIST, and the Staff-Sargent who helped run the operation. The LT had burns to his face and an oxygen tube in his nose. The Sargent’s hands were covered in bandages.

From the crew, I learned what had happened in the M113. They’d been doing their job, and the exercise was running perfectly. About four minutes before the round hit, they’d been in what the military calls MOPP level four. This is complete protection from a chemical environment to include gloves, protective mask, and suit. Word had come across the radio circuit to stand down from MOPP four. The crew took off their masks and gloves, and continued to call targets.

Then the round hit. All the men told me the inside of the carrier exploded into flame instantly. The LT realized they’d taken a hit, grabbed the radio, yelling for everyone to “Cease Fire.” I told him I’d heard the recording and it must have scared them to death. He ordered everyone out of the burning track, looked around, and got out himself. He did a quick headcount, and including himself, there were three men. He was missing a man, and assumed he was still in the burning APC. He went in to find him and got out only when heat and smoke forced him out.

The missing man was the Sargent. What had happened was when the round hit, the Sargent was putting his protective mask away. The mask is made of rubber, and it caught fire almost instantly, and set him on fire. Panicked, he ran from the APC, and was running down the hill on fire before he remembered to stop, drop and roll. By that time the damage was done. The mask had burnt his hands badly. He went back up the hill, and found his LT burnt and gasping for air.

All four men admitted that they were alive only for the grace of God.

I finished their statements and faxed those off the Ft. Riley. A few days later, the track was brought in and sat at the sandbox (where visiting troops assembled and stayed before going home).

I don’t know what, if anything happened to the crew of the tank that fired them up, or what was done with the men in charge of setting up range safety. Seems to me that someone should have noticed something wasn’t right and said something.

Because of that, four men almost died. I don’t know what happened to them after that. I will say this, that young LT was an officer worth something.

I hope they all recovered and have had full lives.