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I was a US Army tanker in the Iraq War and a gunner in the Abrams tank built to annihilate enemy armor

Chris Panella   

I was a US Army tanker in the Iraq War and a gunner in the Abrams tank built to annihilate enemy armor
  • Glenn Girona is a US Army combat veteran who served as a tanker on the M1 Abrams during the Iraq War.
  • He said all of the tank jobs require skill, but gunning was his favorite and felt like a video game.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Glenn Girona, an Iraq War veteran who served in the US Army from 1995 to 2004 and was a tanker on the Abrams. It's been edited for length and clarity.

An interesting thing led me to the Army. I originally wanted to be a pilot, but in middle school, my eyesight started going bad. At the time, they weren't allowing pilots to have corrected vision, so I went to the Army recruiter, scored well on all my tests, and decided to become a tanker.

My recruiter asked me, "Are you sure you want to be a tanker? They're always in the field. They're always gone." 17-year-old me thought that sounded exciting.

Inside the Abrams

I believe it was probably week three or four of basic training in the summer of 1995 that we actually got to go to the motor pool and get familiarized with the Abrams and climb around inside them. And I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world and knew that I had made the right choice.

The driving course was super exciting, but of course, you are nervous. We had a driving simulator at the time, and you actually sit down in a replica of the driver's seat. But, as you can imagine, that was 1995 graphics.

The Abrams is actually amazingly easy to drive. Everything in the driver's station is pretty intuitive, and the seat is the most comfortable in the tank. Perfect place to take a nap. It's always so much better to drive it with an open hatch, sticking your head out and feeling the wind. I think that experience is what gave me my love of motorcycles.

When you're deployed, the tank might feel like a second home to you. Don't get me wrong, it's tight, especially when you're preparing to fire the main gun and you have all the guards up to keep the loader, tank commander, and gunner safe, but it's a workable space.

Everything is painted white to help in low light visibility. But in the first couple of weeks that you're getting used to the space, you're bumping your elbows all the time. You learn to put your wristwatch on with the face inside the wrist, an old submariner's trick because you crack quite a few watches slamming into things.

You get used to the Abrams pretty quickly, though. When I went to Iraq, I started as a gunner. That seat in the turret is probably the most uncomfortable, but you're likely the most protected. The crew wears helmets and communicates over radio, and when the tank is going at full speed, it's really the only way to hear one another, although newer models of the Abrams have some degree of noise cancelling.

Look mom, video games were actually useful

I was a good gunner, and I think being one of the first generations brought up playing Atari and Nintendo actually really, really helped me. I remember talking to my mother later and saying, "Those games did provide something, mom, they did something."

You have to qualify at minimum once a year in tank gunnery. And of course, the most pressure is on the tank commander and the gunner.

It's all about hand-eye coordination, and you have to know where every switch is without pulling your face away from the sight. The gunnery control looks like, if you can imagine, some of the commercial airliners' little steering stick. It has two controls and it's pretty intuitive how to use it. Although I will say, if you like your reverse controls when you play video games, being a gunner on the Abrams will mess you up.

A common misconception in the civilian world is that the Abrams locks onto the target, and that's absolutely not true. Once you find the target, you're going to hit your laser range finder switch, and that'll give you an accurate range. Then, you get your firing solution, which calculates the target's velocity and movement. If you get everything right and make sure your range is accurate, you'll hit that target.

It takes some practice to learn, and you'll go into your firing simulators a lot to figure it out. It really all comes down to the interaction between the gunner and the tank commander. And it's a lot of fine motor skill, exactly the kind of thing, you can imagine, when you're playing a first-person shooter, getting on targets and engaging them.

But the hard part is knowing how to get that adjustment in, keeping up with the speed and movement of your target, and figuring out how to work together with your crew.

Teamwork makes the dream work

I served nearly 10 years on tanks in every position, from loader, driver, and gunner to commander. It takes a lot of skills to operate different roles in the Abrams, but if everyone has their head on right and knows their jobs, it comes together pretty easily. Everything is a crew effort.

Tank commander is all about being able to know the engagement, the order, and all the fire commands. For the gunner, it's all about the skill and being able to hit the targets. But, you know, personalities are a thing. I've had tank commanders I've gotten on extremely well with, and that comes into play in your regular day-to-day operations and maintenance.

But once you're in the field and things start getting hot, all that goes away and you just mesh as a crew. A lot of it is just knowing what to do, having those reflexes.

Every tanker has to qualify a couple times a year to able to load in around seven seconds or less. It makes a major difference when you have a good loader.

One of my friends, who was unfortunately killed in action in Iraq, was an amazingly fast loader. He could switch in usually three to four seconds if he had them in a sweet spot, and he would make sure that they were ready in between engagements. In fact, he was so fast, there was a mounted camera inside the tank to watch him and get on video how fast he was.

What the Abrams brings to a fight

When I got out of the Army in 2004, there were very few tanks that could actually compete with the Abrams. During my time, I got very familiar with older models of French Leclerc, the British Challenger, and the German Leopard.

The Challenger was really close to the Abrams in a few areas, and fire control is pretty good. But the fact that you had ammunition stored in the turret open, unlike the Abrams, was not something I liked.

The Leclerc had really good sights at the time, but it had a lot of reliability problems. When it's hydraulic suspensions were working and not leaking or broken, it had the smoothest ride. And it was the only tank that could compete with the Abrams in terms of drive and speed. All the other tanks, the Abrams would leave for dead.

The Leopard was super cramped inside, and it terms of survivability, it left a couple of things to be desired. They had kind of exposed ammunition racks behind the driver in the hull, which leaves the crew vulnerable if the tank is struck by mines or IEDs.

The Abrams was designed to fight enemy armor and just annihilate it. That purity of design is something that I feel other kinds of tanks have sort of watered down.

Ukraine, which just received 31 Abrams from the US, is doing well in its fight, but the logistics may not be there to feed the Abrams' gas-guzzling turbine engine. If they were just charging into Russian lines and attacking, it would be a good tank, but the way the war is going, that doesn't seem to be the case, at least right now.

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