I recently posted a picture in Facebook and it showed a young PFC in the gun turret of one of our Humvees. We’d placed sandbags around the gun position to help provide a little more protection from Small Arms Fire (SAF as we call it).
We also placed sandbags on the floorboards to help give more protection should we hit a landmine. For the vast majority of us, all this did was make an uncomfortable vehicle even more uncomfortable. You lost a lot of leg room, and I remember eating my knees, and my legs cramping up. They also made getting in and out harder.
For the vast majority of us, we never had to put it to the test to find out what kind of protection the bags would provide.
But one young lady did.
During the ground war portion of the Gulf War, one of the things the Air Force did was to drop thousands of mines. We also dumped a bunch using MLRS rocket systems. The idea was this. These mines were dropped behind the Republican Guard positions. We came at them and as they fail back, they found themselves in the mine fields. This slowed their retreat, and at the same time inflicted additional casualties and damage.
Think of a hammer and anvil approach and you get a good idea of what it was supposed to do.
There’s only one small issue with it. Whatever we drove them through, we had to go through ourselves.
But we did have a couple of big advantages. First, we knew the mine fields were there. Second, we were prepared to open lanes up to allow us to move through safely. Opening the lanes fell to the combat engineers. They did this through a variety of means, but the most common was using a modified M1A1 tank with what is called a “Mine Plough.”
It works like this. The tank moves forward, the crew drop the plow in front, and it bulldozes dirt and mines aside. Presumably, it detonates a number of the mines.
Another way is to send a tank through with what we call a “Flail.” This is rotating drum with heavy chains. As the tank moves forward through the minefield, and the drum rotates, the chains hit the ground, detonating any mines they come in contact with. I don’t recall seeing any flail tanks (I’m sure they were around, but there were plenty of mine plow equipped tanks).
Either way it’s done, it opens a more or less safe lane. It must be terribly unnerving work going through and hearing and feeling the explosions just a few feet away.
The process works, but sometimes it misses a mine, or whoever is driving through the lane gets off the track a little. And then we have problems.
Our little convoy was the Battle Central. The Battle Central itself was several expandable vans that could be connected together. Filled with radios, maps, and so on, the interconnected vans formed a mobile War Room from which the battles were fought.
If you weren’t directly associated with running the battle, then you were there to support and protect it. An example would be the cooks. They’re not there to run the battle, and when they weren’t cooking, they had a weapon and were part of a our parameter.
To protect this vital piece of real estate, we had the Head Quarters company, a team of engineers, the First Armored Division Band, and us, a platoon of MPs.
When we moved, we rode on the flanks forming part of a mobile wall to help protect the vital assets. Now as we came to the mine field we slowed.
The Combat Engineers had opened lanes through the minefield for us. They’d been marked and the idea is you stay in the lane. In old war movies, you’ll see a dramatization of where soldiers are walking through the snow in a minefield. They’ll step in the tracks of the man in front of them. Same idea here. If you stay in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you and it hasn’t gone bang, you should be okay.
Oh, did I mention that some of these lanes can be rather narrow. I recall when we going through, looking out the window and seeing a mine less than a foot from our front tire.
Let’s talk about the mines a little. These were small mines, and are commonly referred to as Anti-Personnel Mines They’re about the size of a small juice can like you might buy at 7-11. While they were designed to harm or kill a person, they still had enough bang to them to seriously damage a vehicle and the folks inside.
All I could think of as we traversed the minefield was let’s not find out just how much protection these sandbags would provide. I had this vision of seeing the floor erupt into my face in a ball of fire and sand, and metal shards jetting through. The force of the explosion would pen me into the chair and the metal would keep on flying and slicing through my legs and flak jacket. Then pain followed by blackness followed by nothing.
We’d been moving along fine, and three quarters of the convoy was through the minefield when suddenly we heard an explosion. I glanced, and saw a cloud of smoke and dust around the Humvee belonging to the the Divisions Chief of Staff (COS).
They’d hit a mine. And it was the sandbags that contributed to saving the driver, if not her life, than certainly from further harm.
The back tire on the driver’s side of the Humvee caught the mine. The explosion shredded the tire. Shrapnel (metal fragments) put holes in the fuel tank.
But the mine was far from finished doing its dirty work.
The force of the explosion slammed the driver into the steering wheel, breaking her nose. Shrapnel pierced the thin steel of the floor, went through the sandbags, and through the back of her chair. All that was now between her and injury, and maybe even death was a flak-jacket that had sat in a warehouse someplace for God knows how long. She also wore MOPP gear and her uniform for all the good they’d do her if the shrapnel made it through the flak jacket.
Flak jackets are not bullet proof vests. Though some folks have tested them, and they will stop some small pistol bullets, it’s an iffy proposition at best for bullet – sometimes the jacket stopped the bullet, sometimes it didn’t. You wouldn’t want to stake your life on it stopping a bullet.
What a flak jacket is designed to protect against is the very thing that had pierced her seat and was now moving at several hundred feet per towards her spine.
The metal caught the jacket, shredding the outer cover and kept moving.
But most of its power had been taken from it. After going through a tire, the bottom of the Humvee, sandbags and the steel of the seat, the flak jacket stopped it.
Damaged, the Humvee lurched to a stop, blocking the lane.
The vehicle behind them moved up, and with a roar of power, began pushing the Humvee out of the way. We could see the girl steering it to keep it in the lane. This is a standard maneuver because we can’t afford bottlenecks in a movement, especially in a place like that.
Once they cleared the minefield, mechanics and medics swarmed around the damaged vehicle.
Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt beyond rattled nerves and a broken nose when the driver slammed into the steering wheel.
We kept moving. But we could hear over the radio what was happening. We’d passed several battle damaged Humvees that had been abandoned, and the mechanics went to them, stripped what they needed, and in less than an hour, had the Chief of Staff’s Humvee back up and going. His driver, now sporting black eyes and a white strip of tape across her nose and escorted by the mechanics, rejoined us.
It wouldn’t be the last minefield we went through. Those passages were uneventful.
I’ve heard, but never confirmed, that the COS’s driver received the Purple Heart. I heard she felt like a damn fool getting it since she considered her injuries minor.
But I think we can at least thank bags of sand for helping her not feel worse.
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